My strange and unexpected fascination with Kyoto starts, quite simply, with a visit to What the Book? in the Itaewon neighborhood of Seoul. Browsing through the travel section in December, when my son Alex is here visiting, I come across a book by Pico Iyer called The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto . The picture on the front is enticing enough, the photograph divided diagonally into two parts. On the top triangle is a Japanese lady in a mustard colored kimono, holding an umbrella by her side. On the bottom is a city street with neon signs and fast-moving headlight beams, like red and yellow silk threads, speeding down the length of the streets.
The blurb on the back cover says Pico Iyer decided to go to Kyoto and live in a monastery, to learn about Zen Buddhism from the inside, to get to know one of the loveliest cities in the world, and to experience Japanese culture. To be honest, this is what hooks me and causes me to open the book. On the first page he describes an accidental encounter with Japan, which occurs only because of an overnight layover on a flight to somewhere else. In the morning, he walks outside: “As I began to walk along the narrow lanes, I felt, in fact, as if I were walking through a gallery of still lifes. Everything looked exactly the way it was supposed to look, polished to a sheen, and motionless.”
There are multiple things that appeal to me about the whole premise of this book, which I am now reading. I’m enthralled. First, the idea of Japan as a “still life.” Honestly, I have not had an interest in going to Japan as I have feared it will be a repeat of Korea. Many Koreans have told me Japan is just like Korea. Of course, many of these Koreans have never left their own country, so I don’t know why I should believe them. Then several fellow English teachers I know in Korea went to Japan; they also said it was about the same. These comments have steered me away from Japan because I’ve explored many corners of Korea this year and I really don’t want to spend my time and money flying to Japan to see more of the same. Nothing in Korea could honestly be compared to a “still life.” So those two simple words feel like an invitation into a painting, a piece of art awash with color and beauty, with elegant gardens and exquisite taste.
The other thing that piques my interest is Pico Iyer’s desire to learn about Zen Buddhism. Here in Korea, I have put off time and again doing a temple stay. I don’t know why it has happened. It was one of my goals to do such during my time here. Things keep coming up, either other plans or visitors or cold weather or pesky distractions (or just plain laziness). I’m disappointed in myself that I haven’t yet done this, but I still hope to do one in February, before I leave here. This interest in Zen is one of the things that fascinates me about this book, and about Japan.
I enjoy Japanese food, especially sushi that I’ve eaten in the U.S. I love to see beautiful gardens and the cultivation of beauty all around. After all, I used to take classes in interior design and had a small interior design business of my own for a while. I decorated my own house in Virginia from top to bottom. I love color. I love the idea of ritual. I love the idea of tea ceremonies and flower arranging, although I’ve never participated in either.
Years ago, I read Memoirs of a Geisha. I found the geisha culture fascinating, though disturbing on many levels. I also read the book Hiroshima, by John Hersey, a moving and highly disturbing personal story of that city’s residents who survived the nuclear attack in 1945. I used to think if I ever visited Japan, I would have to go to Hiroshima where it is said you can see outlines of people who were vaporized by the bomb on concrete walls. I don’ t know if this is simply a legend. Anyway, I’ve talked to people who have visited Hiroshima and they say it is extremely depressing, much like visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, I assume. An educational and moving and disturbing voyage, something everyone should do. It’s not something I will do this time.
I’m not really very knowledgeable overall about Japanese culture. So I look forward to spending 5 days in Kyoto next week, over the lunar new year. I’ve heard it’s extremely expensive. As I’ve probably overextended myself with travel this year, I’m nervous about this. But, the plan is laid. I will paint myself, a mere fleeting brushstroke, into the “still life” of Kyoto conjured up by Pico Iyer.