Kyoto: The Locals

November 20, 2019

12 min

3017 words

Journal

In the morning, I say goodbye to Hajime-san and his wife Noriko-san. I write my impression on the second edition of their guest book on the kitchen table, I wonder about all of the guests who have written their short stopover here; how they ended up here, and how is their life continue. As for me, I wonder if this journey becomes the last or only once in a lifetime experience; for a moment, I suspended in time

• • • • •

I’m heading to Kyoto but still stuck at Hikone train station, I suppose to attend a Couchsurfing Japanese calligraphy event at 10 AM but the train information screen says about a bridge crash on the way to Kyoto, so the schedule gets delayed up to 45 minutes. The event is held by a local woman named Comachi, I tell her that I might be late or at the worst can’t catch up the event, she is a bit sad but kindly offer me a half-price if I still want to join in the mid-event

• • • • •

Seemingly, everything I know about cities or Japan’s history mostly comes from Japanese comics and novels I’ve read. I know that Kyoto was the ancient capital before moved to Nara, back to Kyoto, and finally to Edo (Tokyo) during the Meiji Era, perhaps related to the geography and political situation. Now I wonder if Tokyo is an anagram form of Kyoto, as To-Kyo and Kyo-To are formed by the same characters

• • • • •

Inside the waiting room at Hikone station. I see two old women having a conversation and a schoolgirl with the iconic blue uniform playing with her tiny phone. The summer heat here is so damn blazing. Kansai region is famous for its humid and lack of wind during this time, especially the Kyoto area. I feel a bit uncomfortable, this reminds me of the days before I left home. In my hometown every day feels like summer, my school uniform always got wet after school, even at home my shirt usually got wet after taking an afternoon nap, and at night I often scrambled to get the only fan in the house with my brother

• • • • •

I arrive in Kyoto at 10.25 PM. From Kyoto station, I walk fast to the event location. The nuance slowly changes into a remake version of old Japan. I passed through a pathway lined-up with traditional wooden houses on the left and right. Inside the event place, I see two other people meticulously paint a kanji character on a paddle fan. It turns out that Machi is not the one who teaches the calligraphy class, instead of her friend Saisyu who is currently teaching someone in front of her. On the table, there are piles of paper that have been used for practice. On the table, all sizes brush neatly lined up. Saisyu invites me to sit, she gives some papers, a brush, and orange ink. Since she can’t speak English fluently, she keeps in Japanese while Machi translating into English. She explains a bit about the writing systems then asks me to pick out between Hiragana and Katakana composition of my name. I pick the Hiragana, she continues by demonstrating the brushing techniques and the way to control the pressure to maintain the ideal shape. I screw it mostly, but she patiently drives my hand to absorb the pressure. “Here, we believe that the way you brush and the pressure you put represent what kind of soul you have inside,“. After a bunch of practice, she gives me an uchiwa fan and black ink to brush my name on it, “orange is for practice” she adds

• • • • •

After the event, I walk without a destination. I haven’t booked any place to stay yet. The heat burns my skin. I walk in hurry to the alley I’ve been through before and stop in a cafe called ‘Cafe World’. I order an ice coffee and vegetable spaghetti. I check my phone and look for a hostel online, but suddenly an incoming email notification from a couchsurfer host I’ve contacted last night appears

From: Mayuko
-Hi, sorry for the late reply, I just check your request
-Have you arrived in Kyoto?
–Yes, I have and still looking for the hostel
-If you haven’t booked it you can stay with us..
-Do you know where are you now?
–I’m at a cafe on.. wait..
-Shimmachi-dori but I don’t know the area
-I’ll share you the location…
–Can you find the way to Kawaramachi Station?
–I’ll meet you there at three-thirty

I arrive around Kawaramachi Station earlier than I thought; I sit on a stone bench surrounded by a small garden among crowded intersection. Mayuko arrives and greets me without clumsy as if we were an old friend. She wears a white t-shirt, long blue monotone skirt with flower motifs, and a small bag on her shoulder. Her hair is typical medium length bob style with bangs like the most common hair cut among Japanese women. And the good thing is, she speaks fluently in English with her local accent still cling nicely

• • • • •

-Do you know why traditional Japanese vertically written? –Hm, I don’t know but once I’ve read that, in the past they borrowed the symbol and the writing system from the Chinese writing system. Perhaps because it’s symbolic language? so, no matter how you align the letter it’s still readable
-That’s Right! it’s borrowed from Chinese writing system, and to simplify Chinese Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana was developed. There are some theories about why its vertical, one of them is because in ancient times most of the East Asian people write the text on a bamboo or formed a social habit of giving signal through bamboo tree which is written in vertical and it continues through other mediums.
–And how’s today? is there any difference when people write in vertical or horizontal? –After world war II, horizontal writing system slowly becomes more common, nowadays we use both but depends on the occasion, we called it Tategaki for vertical form and Yokogaki for horizontal form. Tategaki commonly used in newspaper, letter, novel, manga while Yokogaki is used in textbooks; there is no way you could write an equation in vertical form

• • • • •

I ask Mayuko if she knows any interesting hidden places here, “hidden..?” she looks a bit confused. “you mean less popular place?“. “yes, interesting but not popular”. Her confusion contagious, I even question myself whether I have used the right term

• • • • •

We take a metro bus to an area closed to Heian Shrine. Mayuko lives with her family in a typical Kyoto semi-traditional house (Machiya) surrounded by a residential place in a serene alley. Her family runs a small bakery and pastry shop not far from their house. When I ask her how long she has been living here, she replies “I was born here, I grow up here, study here. I probably know every inch of this city. Ha ha”

• • • • •

I will stay in their house for three days until Sunday. This is my first experience stay with couchsurfer, a complete stranger which I’ve just met a few hours ago, so I feel a little bit clumsy right now, but Mayuko seems very friendly that’s at least comfort me. I stay in a room on the second floor. Mayuko apparently has hosted few people before, on the wall, there is a board with photos of the previous guests and her photos abroad with decorated words on it

• • • • •

-Do you have any plan for today?
–No, I don’t, but tomorrow i’m going to Fushimi Inari Taisha and Gion District, any advice?
-Fushimi are super crowded all day and it’s very hot this summer, you’d better come there late afternoon or early in the morning
-Do you know how to ride a scooter?
–Yes, I know.. -Let’s go there now if you’re not tired and I’ll show you around

• • • • •

A yellow Suzuki scooter spur on the road. “turn right at the intersection — just go straight till the end — that’s Kamo river — over there is Gion but let’s go to Fushimi first — so many cafes along this side — have you tried sake? — that’s McDonald’s —  almost arrive keep on this side”

• • • • •

// Phone notes at Fushimi Inari Taisha
Giant Torii gate: Romon Gate
Like pi (π)
Inari: kami of Rice—kami is Shinto god
Fushimi: the name of this district
Taisha: type of shrine
Kitsune: fox—the kami’s courier
Courier? like messenger? ((sounds like a prophet))
Senbon Torii: thousands of torii gates
Like entering another dimension
Might get optical hallucinations as you walk far in
Might cross paths with boars and monkeys

• • • • •

-do you believe in ghosts?
–Yes, when I was a kid
–There is a Chinese cemetery complex not far behind our house, my room’s window facing the cemetery, but I’ve never seen anything except some cat who opened their basecamp there. They often fight and make a fuss at night and I always shock them with paper bundles but mostly useless because they thought it’s food, they sniff it and must be thought ‘what the hell is this stupid man throw upon us’
–One day there was something that made me almost believe that ghost really exist, my cousin took a vacation and sleep in my room, around 2 AM he woke me up, trembling while pointing at the window, there was a shadow of a creature with a horn and strange shape, I jumped, went outside, and turn around to look over the window, well, it turned out just a bat perched on the windows. As I grow older somehow I lost my fear of supernatural things, kind of skeptical about any spiritual phenomenon

• • • • •

The air is neither cold nor hot. People are seen walking more casually on the pedestrian, perhaps because tomorrow is Saturday. We stop around Shimogyo Ward — an area packed with Izakaya pubs, standing bars, and shopping stores. We continue by walk through the side alleys filled with people coming and going then crossing the Kamo river until Gion District — famous for its traditional arts such as Geisha and Kabuki. “Most tourists usually come here during the daytime but this place actually starting alive at dusk”. The street is lined up with traditional machiya houses decorated with lit red white lanterns and noren curtain which serve as teahouses, bars, and restaurants. Not far when we’re walking just an inch in front of us two women with white makeup and traditional kimono come out from a machiya

• • • • •

-look! that’s Maiko
–Maiko? do you mean Geisha?
-Maiko is a Geiko/Geisha on training before they become Geiko
–Please tell me more…
-First of all, they are not a prostitute but there are some of them ended up having a relationship with their patron, but it’s a personal choice, there is no such thing in their task -to become a Maiko someone should reach age 15, then they should find a host family who usually trains Maiko but that’s not easy, then she lives with the host, another Maiko, and Geiko. Their early days will be filled with a lot of traditional music, dancing, instrument, and ceremonial training.
-they even should behave in public even if they’re not on work, their clients nowadays are mostly tourists or loyal patron, and their income actually is given back to the host and managed by the host
–an exchange for those training, kimono, and the residence?
–sounds like university loan -yeah, sort of…
-as a Maiko get older and have more experiences they will become a Geiko, they usually already have a loyal patron and earn more -their kimono decoration is more simple than Maiko, Maiko use high sandals called Okobo while Geiko use a small one called Geta -anyway, Geisha term is commonly used in Tokyo, in Kansai area it’s Geiko, but the meaning is almost the same — Gei for ‘art’ and Sha for ‘person’; there are also male Geisha called Taikomochi, and the other one who usually associated with a prostitute is called Oiran
–do you know that one of our first president’s wives was a former Geisha?
-yes… I think I’ve seen her in a TV show..

• • • • •

Somewhere near Shinbashi-dori alley, we enter a tachinomi bar called ‘Kokoro’. The bar offers various drinks & dishes such as sashimi, miso, egg mentai, and sake. Next to us on the standing bar, some tourists just finished one bottle of sake. I am personally not a drinker, and never spend my money on alcoholic drinks. I start the conversation by asking her about what makes her so content to be in this city, why not Tokyo or other cities. “That’s the answer, I already feel so content to be here, compare to Tokyo life is much more relaxing here; the living cost and the social pressure is much lower; the people are more talkative; and the most important part, my family is here”. A group of Japanese near us laugh so hard, they talk like figures in anime while enjoying their sake”. We stay there until nine then take a short walk aimlessly in Kiyamachi-dori, down to the road next to the river

• • • • •

I start the day by reading an article about the political situation in Indonesia. The uproar of the recent election which has ended about a month ago still not over yet. The issue today is about 527 election officers (KPPS Officer) who died of exhaustion during the vote count. An immense ocean of disappointment reverberates on social media. Prabowo Subianto and his proponents are furious. They still cannot accept their defeat and trying to fight for the rights, whether rights or delusions

• • • • •

Half of Kyoto is still sleeping. The birds in Okazaki park is chirping on the cherry tree. In front of the park, the magnificent Heian Shrine is still quiet waiting for the tourists who will come soon. ‘Heian-Kyo is the old name of Kyoto’. ‘This shrine is part of Kyoto Imperial Palace in the past’

• • • • •

Every building or houses that I went through is a mystery building which sometimes I mistakenly misunderstood as a cafe, tea houses, izakaya, guest house, or any other kind of shops

• • • • •

Sakura season has passed, it’s the verdant turn that enlivens. Since I started my journey from Tokyo I have visited a dozen temples and shrines which makes me experiencing a temple fever. At this point of my journey, somehow I feel a little bit tired of traveling, not physically but tired of experiencing and exposed to so many different things in a very short time without having much time to absorb and reflect

• • • • •

Kyoto is a kind of place that will give you acute homesickness even before you leave. Every time I see rivers here I find myself petrified and imagining a moment that I want to watch in slow motion

• • • • •

I take a nap about an hour before writing down these notes. From the window, I can see a grey cat lazing near a flowerpot on the neighbor’s yard. Earlier on the way home, Mayuko told me stories about everything she knows about this city, she jumps from one topic to another as we passed different places. “That’s my high school. This is the famous Sanjo-Bridge where Samurai always meet and used to battle and perhaps drink coffee in that Starbucks”. Sometimes it’s better to just enjoy the conversation, be part of it without worrying about what I’m going to write in this note

• • • • •

In the late afternoon, Mayuko and I strolling around the Kamogawa river, it’s only about a few hundred meters from their house. We walk through Kyoto University, she is still pursuing her linguistic degree here. I see a giant tree standing in the middle of the campus area which becomes the university’s symbol. We then take a rest at Kawabata park next to the Kamo river and spend the rest of the afternoon there

• • • • •

“Tō-Kyō ( 東-京) and Kyō-To ( 京-都 ). They have different ‘To’. The Tō in Tokyo means ‘East’ and the ‘To’ in Kyoto means ‘City’, while ‘Kyo’ means ‘Capital’ for both of them. So, Tokyo means ‘East Capital’ and Kyoto means ‘Capital City’. This is because Kyoto is our old capital before it eventually moved to Tokyo in the east part”

• • • • •

Tonight, Mayuko’s mother serves us with a typical local food called Obanzai, it’s a variety of foods such as rice with mushroom, miso tofu, vegetables, fried fish, and other small cuisines. I wonder when was the last time I have a family dinner. Her mother and younger sister curiously glance and exchange smiles among them while eating, it’s as if I am a judge on master chef show

• • • • •

Is there anything that immune to stereotypes? even Gods are the victim; even the stereotype is stereotyped

• • • • •

Youtube sniffs my activity in Japan. Its algorithm recommends me “The Evolution of Japanese Music” video. It brings the music from the 14,000 BCE Jōmon period to 1980’s J-Pop era. Jomon period sounds like common tribal music during a primordial time when people still use a rustic drum, mouth echoes, skin clap, and dances while spinning around the fire. The following era sounds so simple yet silly. It seems like the Japanese gradually gaining their musical characteristic after the Meiji era because it mostly sounds like Chinese traditional music before this period

And the comment section:
Yayoi Period
“Enough with the 14000 years of heyoing, let’s try these metal sticks we’ve found”
Guy #1: “He man listen to this sweet song I made” – dings triangle bell 3 times
Guy #2: “Whoa dude, sick beats”
“Nostalgia! who else is a 14000 BC kid and remember this masterpiece?”

• • • • •

Today, we go hiking to the Takao area in North Kyoto. The roads remind me of Bogor without traffic on Sunday. The atmosphere is pretty calm, I encounter only a few foreigners along the way. We pass some beautiful temples as we walk higher – a temple with a giant bell called Saimyoji, a temple surrounded by the oldest plantation tea in Japan called Kozanji, and a small temple on the riverside which I forget the name – instead of feeling boredom, this time I’m quite enjoying visiting temples