Monday, February 23, 2009

Kyoto Ryokan


Some experiences—no, many—I wish I could have over again, exactly the way they were except for one thing: I'd like to take my intervening years and their wisdom, maturity, or or insights back with me. I'd like to see with the eyes and feel with the heart I have now, those things that I am tempted to say were wasted on my youth. Full-time student status (the unadulterated chance for learning, with no distractions, that college presented), first love, and many of my travel adventures. Of these last, the one I most wish I could replay: my family's visit to Japan. I was fifteen years old, and both my mother and I got to accompany my father on a business trip to Tokyo, then take the bullet train to Kyoto, where we stayed in a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan. I'd like to think that I did take advantage of the opportunity, to the full measure of my ability at that time of life. I was mesmerized, curious, immersed myself in small details (the photo here is one I took on the trip, and I'd like to think it presents some evidence of really looking, really noticing and wanting to capture something essential about the experience). But I would ask different questions now, and more of them. I would see more. I would understand a little more about the rituals and traditions, steeped as they are in centuries of zen buddhist tradition. The classic Kyoto ryokan where we stayed is now more than 300 years old, run continuously by the various generations of a single family. Here is what I do remember: sliding rice-paper ("shoji") screens, the blond tatami mats on the floor of our suite; leaving our shoes outside the door; scrolls of calligraphic art; an alcove with a single flower; windows in our room that showed a lush, carefully tended interior courtyard garden; futons made up with crisp white linens, laid out in a neat row on the floor at night and stored in a closet during the day (the sleeping area became the space where we took our meals); a low dining table with seats that amounted to chairs that had backs but no legs; the tiny bathroom with its traditional cypress wood tub, stool and wash bucket. I remember the women of the ryokan: the room attendants ("nakai-san"), old and deferential, more supple in their movements than even I, the young girl trained in classical ballet, despite their restrictive kimono dress. Carrying a tray laden with the elements of a traditional tea service or else an assortment of steaming lacquer soup bowls, our attendant would drop slowly to her knees in a single fluid motion and rise again without the use of hands. The woman who served us spoke not a single word other than Japanese, yet she seemed to know our needs instinctively. She was formal, austere—yet I remember that my father made her laugh (almost soundlessly, hand covering her mouth but a spark in her eye): unawares, he had wrapped and tied his blue and white "yukata" (cotton kimono) in the direction of a woman, or a corpse. We were served two meals each day in our room: breakfast and dinner; for lunch, we fended for ourselves in the bustling open-air market of Kyoto. The meals were traditional "kaiseki," in the style not of restaurants but of the tea ceremony: frugal, yet somehow sumptuous in every carefully arranged detail of ingredient or presentation. I wish I could have those meals now. Dinners we relished at the time; during breakfast, I confess, the ingrained habits of Western morning meals were nearly impossible to overcome. While sushi in the evening was anticipated and enjoyed, there was something about sashimi (or anyway some unidentified fish dish) in the early hours that we all had trouble with. I know that one bit of biodegradable ocean food did end up in a potted plant, so impossible it was for us to either eat or risk offending by leaving it on the tray. Now though, if I could, I would relish every bite, morning as well as night. What else? I remember becoming finally adept at eating rice with chopsticks; I remember delicate tempura, dashi broth, cooking finely sliced meat on a hibachi. I recall my parents' near-tortuous shiatsu massage experience: my mother convinced she'd have bruises from the rapid back blows. There were also our excursions into Kyoto and to the temples (subject for another post). Finally, I remember that it all went by too quickly—an experience true to its surroundings, though; true to the fundamental transience taught by any Zen teacher or aptly expressed in any proper haiku. It is nearly twenty-five years since we took this trip, and I still ache to grasp the moment, to replay it, relive it, to not let it go. It is hard to give up the mind of attachment. Yet, this was, in all likelihood, a once in a lifetime encounter. Ichi-go, ichi-e.

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