Back to Kyoto four months later, after leaving it in that summer haze when I cycled through the streets and every sight and sound wove meaning into the larger scene. Saturated it. I found the temples by the sluice and its rock garden that rippled through me. I looked into its rooms at the dimly lit paintings, the tiger’s shimmering golden lines. I wrote a blog, felt renewed and re-discovered. I’m still in dialogue with those initial impressions of Kyoto.

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 as the snow scatters across the temple grounds. 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 stucco stairwells, their iron doorways and tiny 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, unsure what I was supposed to even be angry 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, old ladies with needles still mid-stich, smiling; tea is brought, words are exchanged in the growing dusk.

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. Unnamable 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. The chimes of the cymbals, their inner echoes.

It’s like footsteps 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—the golden tiger—and 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 the Heian history, saw Geisha in the evenings; the city was Genji in motion, the city was the Paris in lantern light. 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 feudal dream of Japan. 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. I’m supposed to be looking for something, but I wouldn’t know where to begin.

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.

 

Liam Scanlon

Liam Scanlon is a graduate of the University of British Columbia, where he pursued an English Literature and History Bachelor’s. He currently works as an English Teacher and project coordinator in Japan. He is a columnist at the Vancouver Observer.

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