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Short Story: Falling Down the Rabbit Hole in Kyoto

I woke up this morning with warm sunlight filtering through the bamboo window above my bed. I think waking up to natural sunlight is one of the most underrated pleasures in life. Last Christmas I surprised my husband with one of those natural light alarm clocks and it changed his life.

When I build my dream home, I’ll make sure to include plenty of Japanese Cypress wood (because of the smell), a tatami room, a Cypress bath and a bedroom positioned in the most auspicious sunbathing location. This could be a fire hazard but there’s not enough raw nature in American modern day living.

The first thing to cross my mind after relishing such a moment was, “how much longer is McDonald’s still serving breakfast for?” This is generally not a thought that runs through my mind back home in America – it’s an only in Japan thing.

And because starting the day off with a Japanese McGriddle is where my priorities lay this trip, I told my husband I wanted to walk to the McDonalds down the street. “Well do you want to go to the temple first and then eat?” he asked me. I looked at him as if he just asked me if I’d rather sit in coach for the hell of it.

I looked at him and replied, “No, because when I’m at the temple the only thing I’ll be able to think about is McDonald’s.” Spoken like a true ascetic, I felt like all of my genuine aspirations to grow in a Zen Buddhist spiritual mentality were at that moment derailed in profound hypocrisy. Neither one of us could actually believe those words came out of my mouth. He shook his head and laughed at me in disbelief.

We finished our meal and then headed off to a historically significant Zen Buddhist temple across town called Ryoan-ji. We quickly hailed a taxi and hopped into the pristine white doily laced backseat. Taxis here are generally cleaner than most people’s homes are back in America.

But my theory is that one reason is because the drivers spend so much time in their cars. They practically live in them. The other explanation is that Japanese culture places an enormous amount of importance on attention to detail and most importantly, a profound culture of respect for everything.

My husband instructed the driver “Ryoan-ji desu,” in his best attempt at sounding proficient in Japanese. “Ehh, Ryouuan-ji,” the driver pronounced, correcting him phonetically.” For some reason that sounded a lot like Mt Fuji which cracked me up internally. “Ehhh Mounto Fuji desu,” I joked. The driver looked at me but didn’t say anything. I think he heard me, but I can’t be sure.

For some reason, the thought of some dumb foreigner hopping into an unsuspecting taxi and demanding to be driven outside of the city all the way to Mt Fuji makes me laugh out loud. I could then picture my good friend Chika giving me her typical shameful expression at my misplaced humor in Japanese society and then calling me a “henna gaijin.” “Don’t be a henna gaijin!” she often tells me. This just means weird foreigner, but it’s a term and a phrase that she reserves uniquely for me because I tend to make light of the stoic seriousness of Japanese culture. In other words, I do a lot of dumb shit, on purpose though.

Ryoan-ji is the most famous Zen Buddhist temple in the world, but it’s definitely not the most famous temple in Kyoto. The most famous temples in Kyoto are all cluttered with flocks of tourists obsessively posing for selfies and snapping zillions of pictures immediately sent off to social media.

How can you possibly enjoy the beauty and history of a place when your attention is competing with blockades of tourists who are there, but not really there if you know what I mean? It kills the experience when you’re wandering through a beautiful garden or temple. I think amateur photography today has turned into some kind of obsessive psychosis, thanks to social media.

Ranting aside, Ryoan-ji is at this point my favorite temple in Kyoto and in all of Japan. I enjoyed it because yes there were less people, but also the constructed beauty and balance with nature felt overwhelmingly beautiful.

After we got there, I was drawn to a place near the back of the temple, where natural light changes everything. I sat on the temple’s wooden porch and watched the sunlight hit a patch of constructed forest– a forest made of surreal vivid green moss and miniature Cypress trees. Every time the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, the light transformed this miniature landscape. And each time it felt as if I was peering into an ethereal forest from a higher perspective and watching the sun rise over some magnificent foreign landscape. And at that moment, I was the only one in the universe witnessing such an event which made it all the more special.

I couldn’t help but wonder how much thought and calculation went into creating this tiny beautiful moment on this most insignificantly intelligent small piece of Earth. This made me think about the universe and its seemingly infinite creation of harmony out of chaos, and how this translates into beauty, and what the definition of beauty even is. Yet it felt easier getting lost here than perhaps looking over a grander landscape. It’s a different kind of lostness, one where you can appreciate everything as it was designed without a sublime sense of mystery.

Suddenly, a piercing cold breeze came out of nowhere. It was getting colder by the second so I headed over the wooden platform towards the exit. I looked out over onto the zen garden. At the moment, it started to snow lightly over the grey garden and a rush of cold breeze blew through the temple sending an uncomfortable but sensational chill through me.

I stood watching these elements unfold in awe, feeling as if I walked into a traditional ink wash or even a Hokusai painting. It was a rare and magical moment, and it occurred to me that visiting Kyoto and the rest of rural Japan in the dead of winter would be a far more enriching experience – the elements of nature play a more profound role in the scene.

So much of our trip was planned around the city and its visceral pleasures we used to enjoy, but there’s a depth to this part of Japan that’s far more enriching. My favorite experiences around this country have always been away from the city, which explains why I got a little burned out after two weeks in Tokyo.

We walked out of the temple and out to the small village street. We desperately wanted to find a coffee shop to warm up our frozen fingers. Clearly there wasn’t a Starbucks anywhere to be seen, not even a Tully’s.

Down the street I spotted a local kissaten. Few things in life excite me more than visiting a new kissaten. A kissaten is a small family owned Japanese coffee shop. These are often decorated with dark wood, they serve dainty cakes and sandwiches, siphon coffee and tea using porcelain tea sets – some antique.

But each kissa (for short) has a life, spirit, and mood of its own and a local history written on its walls with a unique energy over the years. I find these cafes both extremely warming and fascinating and for that stretch of time, you’ve found yourself transported into another reality or dimension of existence.

In some way, visiting a local kissa is like entering a Japanese grandmother’s living room (straight through the TV of course) and then being served quality tea or coffee on her most precious porcelain.  It’s these kinds of bizarre, unfamiliar alternate constructed realities that make Japan the most interesting place for me to visit.

We walked inside and a nice older lady greeted us from behind the counter. She smiled warmly and suggested we seat ourselves. A few locals were at the counter and unlike most local establishments that happen to encounter foreigners in their terrain, they ignored us completely and went on their merry way in conversation. One of my favorite parts of being in Japan is the fact that you always feel completely invisible. kissaten

We sat down at a small wooden table in the corner near a large window with a view of the side street. I studied the aged, eccentric pictures hanging on the walls. I’ve never seen so much pastel anywhere in the world, except for here in this country. Salmon is an incredibly popular choice of color palette for the older generation and it’s almost as if the early 1980s never ended.

To my right, a small electronic photo slideshow on a doily-covered cabinet was generating repeated photos of cats. My husband’s gaze was fixated upon this slideshow and we suspected the electronic frame itself was at least ten years old. This place was frozen in time. We totally just fell down the rabbit hole, but I was loving every second of it.

I ordered a hot cocoa, a common beverage here in Japan. It’s easy to find hot chocolate almost everywhere you go in Japan. Most kissaten make exceptional cocoa drinks out of a refined powder, but this place’s was mediocre at best. This would usually bother me but I was just happy to be sitting down some place warm.

We sat there for about fifteen minutes warming up and finishing our drinks in an atmosphere of post-war Japan meets 1980s. I’m not sure if it was the unique energy of the place or a general warmth filling me on the inside, but I started to feel honestly a little high. Something was off. Something was not quite right. And although it wasn’t a bad feeling, it worried me. I looked at my husband half seriously and said “We’ve gotta get outta here. I think she fucked with my cocoa.”

“Haha, what?” he said, not the least bit surprised though. After all, he’s used to my random eccentricities over the years which contrasts well with his more banal and logical nature. “Yea, I feel a little weird here. I don’t feel right, I feel a little high right now, I’m not sure what’s going on. I’m really sleepy too, I feel like I could fall asleep right now. I think we should leave.”

He too confessed he was feeling a little weird. “I don’t know what’s going on. What if they drugged us?” he asked. We both looked at each other with puzzled and half serious faces.

A strong and oppressive sense of comfort and warmth came over me and I felt if I surrendered to it, I might never see anyone again. Yet Daniel felt the same thing. I could picture this as the start of some version of a Japanese horror movie equivalent to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. At any moment, this feeling of delightful numbness and bliss would overcome me and I’ll end up waking up in a dark room somewhere never to be seen or heard from again. After all, this place was totally off the grid. I looked to my right and saw a backroom in the distance and felt my imagination go a little wild. This warm and fuzzy feeling inside me was growing stronger by the second. We need to go,” I said. We left in a hurry.

As we walked down the street, we tried to shake off this feeling, although I was feeling it far stronger. I guess there are far worse things in the world than feeling blissfully high and in some part I was relishing it. But the disconcerting part came from not knowing where that feeling came from.

Ten minutes later, a lady passed on a bicycle and smiled and nodded. My husband looked at me and asked eagerly “Did you see that?” “No, what?” I asked. “That lady, it’s the same woman from the coffee shop. That’s weird because we just left, yet how did she just pass us? How’d she get over here so fast?” My husband, clearly a little weirded out, was racking his scientific brain around the makings of what felt like the next Stephen King novel. We shook it off and ten minutes later, my warm and fuzzy high was gone.

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