I’ve just returned to Japan to lead a tour of Kyoto and Shikoku for two and a half weeks. In my first 24 hours here, in Kyoto, I’ve tried to pay special attention to everything because I know that our first impressions in a place are always the freshest. After a day or two, the initially striking detail becomes commonplace. Three things have struck me tellingly in these first 24 hours. The first is the way every package in Japan – the toothbrush in my hotel room, the little cookie wrapped in plastic, the dried squid I bought in the convenience store – comes with a tiny triangular slit cut into one end, so that you never have to struggle to open it. The second thing is the ubiquity of vending machines. One of the first things I noticed after going through customs in Osaka airport was the bright blinking vending machines that offered both hot and cold drinks – actually, I’d forgotten about the hot drinks and only realized this with a start after I pushed what I imagined was a nice cool ice coffee and picked up a hand-burning hot coffee instead. Last night I passed literally a dozen vending machines in the two-block stroll I took from my hotel in Kyoto. And the third thing is this: this morning, my first morning in Kyoto, I took the elevator from the 14th floor to the second-floor dining room for the breakfast buffet. On my way back to my room, I shared the elevator with three neatly coiffed and coutured middle-aged women. They were going to the 10th floor, and when the elevator reached their floor and the door opened, the women all bowed to me and said, “O-saki-ni, shitsureishimasu.” Translated, this means: “Excuse me for leaving before you.” For me, these three things symbolize Japan’s pervading thoughtfulness, dedication to service and consideration of others. It’s wonderful to be back!
I learned a new word today: sakura-hubuki. Literally this means “a rainfall of cherry blossoms.” My tour group experienced this pink-petaled rainfall as we walked along the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto past a sparkling stream. Cherry trees line the path and at one point the breeze swelled and suddenly we were surrounded in swirling soft-scented petals, landing gently on our shoulders and gathering in our hair like snowflakes. Magic!
When it rains on a spring day in the back streets of Kyoto, a different world emerges: the grays and blacks and whites of the cobbled streets shine, the fallen cherry blossom petals glisten in pink relief against the wet stone, the branches of the trees seem drenched in bright spring green, umbrellas blossom and the tittering Japanese tourists in their brilliant rented kimonos seem to have sprung from a woodblock scene.
I have just spent an out-of-time hour at a traditional tea ceremony. The gracious and elegant hostess explained the intricate choreography of the ceremony, where each minute gesture – stepping into the tea room, wiping a bamboo spoon, whisking the tea, turning the bowl toward the guest – is carefully thought out and requires weeks or even months to master. She said that “wa-ke-se-jaku” is at the heart of the tea ceremony; “wa” is harmony; “ke” is respect; “se” is purity; and “jaku” is tranquility. After an hour I emerged feeling entirely refreshed but even more, transported – as if I’d been taken to a different plane entirely. And then I realized that I had – I’d been transported to the plane of wa-ke-se-jaku.
In the cobbled, winding-lane neighborhood of Kyoto I’ve adopted as my home, I’ve just discovered a tatami-matted teahouse with its own private garden, where koi lazily swim, water plonks from a bamboo spout, and moss patches the pocks in ancient-looking rocks. I am sitting on tatami sipping matcha, thick green tea, and nibbling on a rice paste and red bean sweet and scribbling in my journal. I love the neighborhood temples of Kyoto, the perfectly tended pocket parks, the museum-like shops that sell grainy bowls and shiny lacquerware – but I feel like I could stay in this tranquil tatami-matted space for a day and a night and never feel the need to leave. I need look no further; Kyoto is here.