See You Later, Kyoto

June 24, 2007

I remember my first morning in Kyoto. It was more than five years ago, when I first came over to Japan for study abroad. The night before, I had been so tired and scared that I had locked myself in my hotel room and gone to sleep immediately. I woke up the next morning at 2 a.m., watched Japanese TV – of which I didn’t understand a word, and waited for the sun to rise. Around 6 a.m., I hesitantly ventured out into daylight.

The Higashiyama hills, vibrant with the morning sun’s rays, greeted me. I strolled along the picturesque Sosui canal, venturing over to Heian Shrine. I was stunned by its magnificent orange and green paint. This is Japan! I thought. It was love at first sight.

Like any long-term relationship, I outgrew the honeymoon phase. I went to work in the “real world” in two ultra-conservative work environments: the government and a 117-year old hotel. I got annoyed with the bureaucratic, inhuman aspects of this society – the facades of politeness that greeted me at every store, every office, everywhere. Once I understood Japanese well enough to watch TV, I realized most of the shows were about as unfunny and uninteresting as watching plants grow. As a foreigner, I grew isolated – not quite fitting in with the NOVA English teachers but never really accepted by my Japanese friends either. It seemed both groups just couldn’t comprehend the idea of a foreigner in Japan who spoke Japanese and understood Japanese culture. In other words, my relationship with Japan soured. I wanted out and I decided to go back home, to the US.

With not even two weeks left in Japan, I decided to make a final trip to Kyoto, to take care of a few chores and to say goodbye. I had anticipated the trip, but oddly, when I stepped off the train from Nagoya, I felt no grand feelings of “I’m back!” Walking through Kyoto Station felt too natural for that. My instincts took over and I only thought of the logistics – find a coin-operated locker, find my exit, buy a bottle of water. Perhaps thinking of only the mundane is the mark of a true resident.

I stayed at a guesthouse, Waraku-an, on Marutamachi-Higashioji, directly behind Heian Shrine. A remodeled machiya, Waraku-an reminded me of my own machiya that I had lived in only a few months ago. It seems like more time has passed since then. At the time, I had a routine. Wake up, get dressed, go to work, come home, cook dinner, take a shower, go to sleep. I rarely stopped to realize that I lived in such a perfect house, as decrepit and rodent-infested as it was.

This morning, I woke up early by no fault of mine; the other girl in my room was noisily packing her bags. As Japan is now in its rainy season, many of the flowers at Heian Shrine are in bloom. On a whim, I decided to visit. Again, I walked along the edge of the Sosui canal. Again, the sun shined brilliantly behind the eastern mountains. Again, I washed my hands at the shrine and heard the gravel crunch under my feet. I paid my admission and looked around the garden, the irises and lotuses in full bloom, the hydrangeas just past their prime. It only struck me on the return to my guesthouse how things had come full circle in such an unexpected, unplanned way.

Now, as I begin canceling my credit cards and making arrangement for my pension refund, I remember my life in Japan as beautiful and hazy, like a 1940s movie star during her close-up scene. I can remember only the good, and the bad seems as inconsequential as a mosquito bite. Endings can do that, I suppose. I have a lot of regrets, too. Why didn’t I appreciate it more? Why did I choose to stay in a job that wasn’t right for me, not once, but two times? Could I have done something differently to make it work?

I hope that this is merely a “Kyoto, see you later,” and not “goodbye.” Not because I love Kyoto and could probably be happy living here for the rest of my life. But, because there are temples left to visit, markets to shop at, festivals to attend, cafes to try. I feel like I didn’t do Kyoto justice the first two times. And they say that the third time is a charm.


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