I feel like the one thing I’ve been consistent with these days is apologizing–to the darling Tea Barista around the corner from my workplace for not saying my order loud enough (or saying too much–runaway train of effusive theatre babble, much?), to my dance partners for having scorching hands (I’m a mobile space heater in the winter, but when it feels like a steam bath inside? Oof.), and to you now. Life happens–she says, with a sheepish smile–and I’ve had a less-than-ideal few months trying to transition from one dream job falling through to another fizzling out in its final stages. My default state for the better part of this past year has largely been Edvard Munch’s The Scream: the constant fretting doesn’t leave much room for anything else.
[Bops myself on the nose with a rolled up newspaper] EXCUSES!
But for good measure and old habits: I’m sorry for falling into a black hole these past two months. Trust me, I don’t enjoy these long spells of absence one bit and it’s no fun for you either (I’ll try to give some warning next time around!).
It’s worth mentioning, though, that my days, contrary to what I might make myself believe (the stagnancy! the glacial progress!) have in them rosé moments–effervescent, blushing episodes. Take the momentous SCOTUS ruling at the end of June: my day started with a free iced tea from an apologetic server because another patron unknowingly nicked my quiche order at breakfast and come the afternoon, I was trading wide smiles with a barista at one of my lunch break haunts over the morning’s events, which somehow led–without a beat–to an emphatic back-and-forth chorus of “You’re beautiful!” … “No, you’re beautiful!” … “I love YOU!”
If you can think way, waaaay back to May’s hazy last days, we last left off with Savory Mochi Things, dolloped with sesame-flecked buttons of sauce. Following lunch, our group ascended back on Teramachi Shopping Arcade and out to where our bus was waiting (not before Yuri had to wrangle a few members of our company from getting distracted by the wealth of shopping opportunities passing them by–there’d be time for that ‘later, honestly! We’re on a schedule!’).
Kyoto on a Sunday afternoon passed outside my bus window with a sedateness I hadn’t expected. Not that I had done enough homework before our trip to really expect anything–I’d dreamed of days far in the future where I’d be walking its streets, sipping hot tea while snow fell or crushing its autumn colours underfoot, but they were only postcard fantasies. Now that we were actually swinging through its streets–the Kamo River disappearing in our rear view as we headed towards our next stop, skirting the grounds of the Imperial Palace while we were at it–I needed more than two days in that city to find the right words. It took the shinkansen just over two hours to arrive in Kyoto from Tokyo and that relatively brief time period felt like a gulf–this was an old Japan, far from Shibuya’s crossings.
There are no skyscrapers to draw your eye and its most modern, commercial areas occupy a modest few blocks; a five-minute stroll from Daimaru Department Store’s polished floors and impeccable foyer chocolate sculptures had us on a bridge over the river with the lights from Gion’s ochaya (tea houses) winking across the water, the points of inviting gold nestled among rows and rows of traditional wooden townhouses (machiya: a typical sight in Kyoto). There’s an ambered quality to this city of shrines–brightly-patterned kinchaku swinging on kimono-clad arms, a smudge of vermilion from another passing torii, the barrels of preserved vegetables sharpening the breezes along Shijo-dori, and the faintly gleaming patina of the streets made by centuries of passing feet. Motion slows in Kyoto and the air is more still, but you don’t have to dig deep to strike that vein of unabashed pride.
After roughly 10 minutes, our bus pulled to a stop outside Nishijin Textile Center. We had just shy of half an hour to browse the second floor shop (little fabric goods, decorative pieces, and a few racks of kimono of course) before we were set to watch one of the center’s daily kimono shows. No sooner had I stooped to look at a case of zodiac figurines made from silk cocoons (no bigger than my thumb) than what seemed like “every tour bus in a five-mile radius”‘s-worth of passengers came flooding into the Center–we went from a slow Sunday to scrambling for breathing room in the space of 30 seconds. If you know me–and many of you kind folks are only barely starting–you’d understand that crowds in contained spaces and myself are not a good mix. This was my Dante’s Inferno, my Midgewater Marshes, Simba scrambling away from the wildebeest in the ravine except the consequences were less fatal and weren’t going to haunt me into my old age.
It’s not entirely fair on my part to get huffy about tour groups… seeing as I was part of one myself, but Nishijin was the rare lackluster spot on an otherwise wonderful trip. The incoming surge of visitors broke upon the second floor merchandise displays and obscured the handful of Nishijin women working on traditional looms against the far wall, until all that remained was the steady clack-clack and shuttle swish of their weaving.
When the kimono show started, keeping my place on the stairs amidst people jostling for prime photo-taking spots was a feat (I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some elbows thrown in the crowd). It was a shame, having to squirm out of the path of strangers looking for an oblivious shoulder to use as a makeshift tripod: the kimonos being modeled were beautiful (from an austere cream with an obi decorated with water lilies to a blazing scarlet number with a riot of blossoms trailing down billowing sleeves) and culminated in an elaborate, ceremonial 12-layer jūnihitoe.
One more activity in the city before we headed out of Kyoto proper and to our lodgings that evening: Kyo-yuzen handkerchief dyeing at Marumasu-Nishimuraya. Yuzen dyeing dates back to the latter part of the 17th Century (the middle of the Edo Period) and has since become the preeminent form of kimono dyeing, characterized by its striking colours and staying power.
Our bus dropped us off on a quiet residential side street, a sparse web of phone lines crossing overhead and between squat, taupe-and-coffee grounds coloured apartment buildings. Marumasu-Nishimuraya is in a traditional townhouse; a narrow alleyway–square stepping-stones nestled on a gravel path, the dark wood of the machiya flanking us bower-like–led to the workshops at the rear of the house.
Thought #1: it was cold. Not walk-in freezer cold, more like paint-spattered concrete floors + squat metal stools + early February in Kyoto cool. We warmed up quickly from the rows of fluorescent lights overhead (their glare softened by the vibrant hodgepodge of dyed cloth, fans, and articles of clothing lining the walls and dangling on clotheslines throughout the space) and the soon-to-be intense mental exertion of trying to get a certain shade of blue JUST. RIGHT.
Our work stations were set up with themed binders of stencils (mythical figures, fish, flowers, leaves, assorted wildlife, etc.), plastic tubs of colours, brushes, and cups of thin dowels (with needles at the ends to keep our stencil sheets in place) close by. We seated ourselves and one of the workshop’s hosts and his two assistants gave us a brief introduction on the history of yuzen dyeing, then walked us through the technical process. And just in case we weren’t able to commit the steps to memory right there on the spot, we were all given instruction sheets to reference at our tables (with adorable illustrated characters in the margins providing commentary, as expected).
Thought #2: If my life in the States falls through for whatever reason, I might have to consider relocating to Kyoto–I’m quite good at this! A few members of the staff walked around the room, stopping occasionally to adjust brush techniques, but we were mostly left to our own flights of fancy. One of the workshop assistants hovered briefly behind my shoulder at one point, let out a little hum of approval, and moved on.
The dyeing process, for all the striking patterns and colours it produces, is built on lightness. When dipping our brushes into the tubs of dye, we aimed to have the barest grazing of colour across the bristles–anything more than a pea-sized glob would go on the fabric too dark and too heavy. Before we could even consider touching the handkerchief, the brush with barely there paint was vigorously buffed on a paper towel to remove the excess (darker shades are built by layering on colour, all in circular motions).
I finished just shy of our allotted hour and headed outside to wait for our bus, leaving my Mum in a minor tizzy trying to get the purple juuuuust right on the pants of the character she’d chosen to stencil. Café Mayu, the little eatery on the grounds that we passed on our way in, was hushed for the odd in-between hour–the sandwich board outside advertised waffles I’d like to try one day.
We stayed for two nights in the Kyoto area, in two separate hotels: the second was centrally located in the city, but for our first night we piled on the bus once more–handkerchiefs neatly wrapped in plastic sleeves with inserts of care instructions–and headed out of Kyoto proper towards the city of Ōtsu in Shiga Prefecture (our lodgings specifically were ~24 km away).
Yuri was a marvel. I know it’s her job, but having been on only one other tour in my life (Spain; junior… or was it sophomore? year of high school; led by Francisco, who spoke no less than five languages and tolerated hours of pitchy sing-alongs to what we chose as our unofficial theme song with impossible grace), it felt like there wasn’t a minute that went by where the microphone wasn’t in her hand and she wasn’t regaling us with anecdotes about cultural differences* and/or giving us the life story of such-and-such shogun. Did you know that Buddhist monks in Japan can eat meat and are highly sought after as husbands because of their wealth and power? My mum was shocked–marriage and meat!
I tried counting the passing temples as we left the city–stone stairs ascending from the sidewalk into a small stand of trees sandwiched between shops, flecks of scarlet and the curve of an upper lintel, swept out of view as houses turned to highway.
After 40 minutes, we were cresting a hilltop road overlooking Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan and one of the oldest in the world. Four floors of butter-yellow rising from a bed of immaculately trimmed greenery greeted us at the end of the drive: the Biwako Hanakaido, our ryokan (a traditional, Japanese-style inn) for that evening.
But the Biwako Hanakaido is not just a ryokan, oh no. On the way there Yuri had stirred our group into a frothy humor listening to her describe the hot spring culture of Japan: how some folks view three dips a day as critical to their wellbeing as breakfast, lunch, and dinner; the precise steps of disrobing and showering before you enter; and the point that got the most chuckles (and some anxious shuffling) from our primarily-from-the-States group–you get one towel yea big (Yuri bracketed a rectangle in the air with her fingers, no larger than a sheet of standard copy paper) and it was up to you to choose where to put it. The Biwako Hanakaido has indoor, private and open-air onsen (hot spring baths) on its grounds.
Several members of the Hanakaido’s staff met us at the entrance; custom welcome banners for our group were hung in the entryway and propped up in a corner of the lobby. Yuri led us to the adjoining lounge, where we were greeted by the rhythmic susurrus of two other staff members behind the bar whisking up a matcha storm for an abridged tea ceremony:
- Wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) is served first, a prelude to the tea. They’re made most often from mochi, red bean, or fruit and, according to Yuri, even the smallest confection may be separated into seven to eight pieces before serving.
- Bow when you receive the tea and rotate the cup clockwise three times in the palm of your hand. Drain it in three gulps (this sounds very dramatic, but you’re not given a massive quantity of matcha).
- When you’re finished, turn your empty cup counterclockwise three times, wipe off the rim, and return it to the host.
As far as I’ve read, there isn’t a consensus on how many times the cup should be rotated, which, humorously enough, feeds into the entire concept of the tea ceremony–it’s a space that exists outside of time and the fact that we can quietly sit here agonizing over degrees of rotation and not have it seem a little out of the ordinary? Well.
The tea bowl is placed before the guest so that the design on its surface can be seen. In other words, it should be placed so that the design is facing the guest. The guest brings the cup to his or her lips, avoiding drinking from the front of the cup where the design is. This is what many people have learned as the reason why the tea cup is rotated. (x)
The matcha came to me just north of warm, a shock of green in a dimpled black cup, accompanied by kuri-manju, a little baked cake filled with sweet chestnut paste. There was a fleeting, scratchy moment of tension in the room as 24 people collectively had an etiquette scare, knitted their brows, and rotated their cups (which were between cups and soup bowls, size-wise), but it was swept away by the plush taste of tea on the tongue.
We had a little over an hour to ourselves before dinner and several of our group sped off to their rooms to get “changed” for some quality onsen time, while I took a more leisurely pace upstairs because my frail Western sensibilities kept me from taking a dip this time around. My mum and I only had one carry-on between the two of us–the Biwako Hanakaido wouldn’t be able to accommodate the small army’s worth of luggage we all had, so the bulk of our things had been sent ahead to the hotel we’d be staying at our second night in Kyoto.
The elevator let us off on a deserted third floor (but not eerie deserted; there was a faint light radiating from behind the paper screens set along the walls, which were a paler shade of yellow than the ryokan’s exterior–more wheat than honey). I’m not sure what I expected as I turned the key in the door, but it wasn’t a little tile entryway barely wide enough for my mum and I to stand abreast and on a raised floor beyond that–
This was, bar none, my favourite hotel/hotel-esque experience I’ve had to DATE. Wait no, I’m going to take a bit of that back because I stayed at some breathtaking riads in Morocco, but as far as single rooms go, this might be the winner. Tatami mats (trimmed with a daisy pattern if you looked closely enough), light spilling out of alcoves in a way that nothing is shining directly in your face but you’re still enveloped in warmth, and Lake Biwa a ribbon of silver peeking through the mist beyond our screen doors. See that little sprig of bamboo illuminated off to the side?
Exquisite local chocolates: a dark chocolate truffle rolled generously in matcha. The characteristic grassy edge of the latter cut through with the right amount of sweet–I could have eaten the entire handful in one sitting, but I saved two to mull over the next morning. Mulled over in my mouth, that is.
Mum and I were besotted with the place. It was the kind of room that deserved a word like “besotted.” We found a pair of yukata (a casual, unlined summer kimono) and complementary deep green outer jackets folded in a corner wardrobe and before either of us could make a scene flapping around the room in them, there was a rap at the door. One of the ryokan’s staff beamed at us, two more yukata [in smaller sizes] draped over one arm and a pair of geta in hand (a clog-maker and a flip-flop enthusiast form a think tank…).
Nihongo ga wakarimasen! I blurted, almost immediately. Or so I thought–I think I did the blurting in my head, because she continued speaking to me in Japanese until she saw the understanding drain from my eyes and my face redden around an increasingly sheepish smile. We both fell into a bemused middle ground of gestures and halting words in Japanese and English. I wondered if she had geta in larger sizes to accommodate my feet: she shook her head apologetically and pointed to her own, saying with a mock frown and knowing sigh, “Me too.”
Our yukata and footwear squared away (we had some minor bickering over whether the yukata should be worn with the left side folded over the right or the right side over the left**), my mum and I did what was only natural: have an impromptu photo shoot in our room. Sit by the window there! There’s not enough light–find the light! Now angle the light!
Some obligatory Over the Shoulder™, naturally.
Mum messaged each photo to our relatives/her childhood classmates/et al. as quickly as we took them. My uncle in China responded–90% jokingly–“I never thought we’d see members of the Chen family in traditional Japanese dress.”
Our photo shoot shenanigans took up more time than we thought and before long it was time to head downstairs to the banquet hall for dinner. We pulled on our tabi socks (split-toe socks for wearing with geta) and clopped off.
I was 10 minutes into sitting when I realized that my hair was still down–kimono are worn with the back collar pulled low to show a slip of the neck, which is considered the most sensuous part of the body. I was hiding my most valuable feature! Folks were still milling around taking photos and the staff were still flitting in and out of the kitchen getting odds and ends set up, so I went back upstairs as quickly as I could to put my hair up… which was not very. The cut of the yukata and geta don’t lend themselves to sprinting–I was stuck with dainty steps, the yukata flapping lightly against my ankles as it caught a passing breeze. The five-minute trip upstairs took a touch longer–every staff member rounding the corner had me shuffling to a halt and bowing.
Hair properly put up, I made it back into my seat just as Yuri was giving us an introduction to kaiseki, the traditional, multi-course dinner we were about to experience that is analogous to Western haute cuisine. There are differing stories around the origins of kaiseki–the term means “hot stone in a kimono fold” and refers to a practice done by Zen priests, but kaiseki at its most elemental is an orderly progression of dishes, crafted with rhyme and reason and revolving around seasonal and regional offerings (and aesthetics, which you’ve likely picked up by now). Each course is handled with the barest touch, and flavors, as they present themselves naturally, shine–a bite of regional fish, lightly salted, with its edges just turning crisp; a square of tofu hugged by a suggestion of sauce.
We started off with a small glass of plum wine–tart and fresh and for someone who generally isn’t big on alcohol (hint: me), it’s probably my favourite wine I’ve ever had. You don’t feel like you’re sipping at cloying fruit syrup, but the plum is very much there on your tongue (it dances across, though, instead of pulling up a chair and loafing around for the rest of the meal).
Two staff members attended to our group, clearing away empty plates and bowls and bringing out new courses in the same motion, so quickly and quietly that I swore at times that they had more arms than they did.
By the time our scalloped dessert plate (featured image) made an appearance, I was more than a little breath-taken at the parade of dishes we had collectively demolished, so unassertive and cozy each bite was that we didn’t even blink when course #12 passed us by. We ate roughly 14 courses, but few of the meals that we encountered in Japan filled us to bursting–our kaiseki dinner, while leaving us comfortably sated, was no exception.
I was determined to find myself a quiet corner of the ryokan and meditate on the love letters to all things vinegared, steamed, and boiled I’d inhaled for nearly two hours, but then it happened.
The TV wheeled in on its trolley, mic stands brought onstage, and ominous binders–law book-thick–handed to the each row of tables: Awkward Karaoke Hour. There were a smattering of brave volunteers, but in-between songs Yuri made her way down each table, mic in hand and the omnipresent, kindly crinkle by her eyes. I think she saw the fear of god in my eyes and my face go the same white as the daikon I had earlier, because I was spared the horror of the stage for the rest of the night (there were some folks in our group who had pipes, though! Imagine one fellow in a straw trilby hat, samba-stepping to his heart’s content in a yukata).
We peeled off after dinner to pursue whatever we wanted to do before turning in for the night. Mum and I wandered absently around corners of the ryokan we didn’t get to earlier, stopped more than once by a mindfully-arranged spray of flowers: here, red anthuriums centered on a moon-like cutout at the end of the hall, golden light catching the waxy, heart-shaped leaves; there, an empty indoor patio, white calla lillies on the floor by the entrance casting their trumpet shadows on the stones.
Imagine the look of pure delight on our faces when we returned to our room for the night and found that the ryokan’s staff had come in, shifted our table and chairs, and laid out these giant’s slippers for beds. There was a moment of confusion over whether we were supposed to somehow cocoon ourselves in that center, patterned area, but then common sense intervened.
P.S. London-based electronic pop is getting me like nothing else these days. Oh Wonder’s “White Blood”, for those late night quiet aches.
* Yuri and her family went to the United States one year for vacation and one of her most cherished memories was standing outside of a Costco. Not going in themselves–just standing–and watching people leave with cartloads of food. Her daughters were delighted (‘One cart could feed a Japanese family for a year!’).
** Left over right, unless you want to bring new meaning to the phrase “walking dead.” Only the dead wear it right over left.