In recent months the Deep Kyoto Group on Facebook has really taken on a life of its own, with members sharing events, photos, info, opinions and even fun little quizzes! It really does feel like it has naturally grown into a vibrant community and a center of friendly discussion. One of our frequent contributors is Lonny Chick, who is perhaps better known on Twitter and Flickr as Rekishi no Tabi, and his photographs and posts on historical matters are always fascinating. A recent discussion about the kind of content we would like to see more of in our group, inspired Lonny to write a wonderful meditation on what “deep Kyoto” means to him personally. It was so beautifully written and so full of heartfelt love for this city that I thought it deserved a wider audience, and I am very glad to say he has given me permission to reproduce it here.
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What is “Deep Kyoto”? What does it mean to you?
I don’t mean this in terms of the Facebook Group, which is a stellar community and I do truly enjoy the posts, but what is “deep Kyoto”?
I ask myself this question a lot, as Kyoto is a very special place that resonates deep in me. It is a destination that allows me to forget the burdens of work and daily life and all the associated stress that really sometimes drags me down both mentally and physically. It is in Kyoto that I can find an inner peace, refresh myself and find the resolve to re-don my samurai salaryman armor to fight in the workplace trenches another day.
So what then is my “Deep Kyoto”? I think the best way to answer that is with a list. In no particular order, here is a portion of that list.
1. It’s the feeling of joy to see the owners and senior staff of one of my favorite obanzai restaurants, who go out of their way to make me and my wife feel special. It is all about the omotenashi (hospitality) and the relationship that has developed over a decade with these people. It is the fact that the okami-san eagerly WANTS to talk about Japanese history and traditional culture with me. It’s the special sake that they bring out for me to sample. It is the box of chirimenjako or special Kyoto pickles that the okami-san presses into our hands to take back to Tokyo. It’s the master preparing extra special goodies for us, unsolicited. Again, Kyoto-style omotenashi really goes a long way with me.
2. It is the taste of botan nabe (wild boar hot pot) cooked in an iribancha tea-based broth on a cold winter’s night. It’s pure Kyoto and pure delight!
3. It is the smile of recognition and greeting one gets when seeing a geiko or maiko on the street who actually remembers you.
4. It is the sound of a shamisen accompanied by a singer emitting from the open second story machiya window on a hot and sultry summer’s night.
5. It’s running into Kyotoite friends on the street at night by pure chance who are on their way to a bar and drag you along, only to find out you will be drinking with a stunning geiko.
6. It is the sound of “kon-chiki-chin” music of the Gion Matsuri during Yoi-yoiyama up through the big parade every July 17. It just helps set the mood.
7. It is the feeling of being revitalized while walking through the Kibune Shrine complex, especially after a rainfall, or during a light drizzle. Water and the dragon god go hand in hand.
8. It is the feeling of deep relaxation and satisfaction one gets when sitting on the veranda at Entokuin or Eikandō, nearly all alone and undisturbed, staring out into the garden and thinking of absolutely nothing for about an hour.
9. It’s the subtle smile and sideways glance one gets from a favorite Buddhist statue.
10. It’s the conversation one has about “what constitutes the best cup of tea” with an accomplished tea master while sipping whisky in a small Gion bar run by a charming semi-retired geiko, who also has a treasure chest full of great stories.
11. It is being told by the owner of an ancient restaurant to wait until all the dinner customers are gone so you can have nearly a free reign to go and photograph just about every nook and cranny of the historic building.
12. It’s being told by the owner of a restaurant, which you are visiting for the first time, to wait until the last lunch customer is gone so he can show you how hamo is prepared.
13. It is just browsing in an antique store and talking to the owner about the history of a piece when he suddenly invites you to an impromptu tea ceremony in his shop using 15th century utensils.
14. It is the wonderful old architecture that co-exists with some interesting new structures.
15. It is a stroll down Kiyamachi at night, holding hands with your loved one, admiring the sakura and soaking up the history of the area.
16. It is stopping to dally around the Tatsumibashi bridge and shrine around midnight, while on the way back to your hotel, just to admire a sudden snowfall and watch the area slowly get blanketed in white.
17. It is the old couple who owns a kissaten, set in an old machiya, who invites you to come back tomorrow to just hang out and watch the carrying of the mikoshi (portable shrine) from their place during the Gion Matsuri and to get tested on Kyoto history knowledge via the Kyoto Kentei books.
18. It’s the sound of thundering hooves and the sight of a mounted archer whiz pass you while firing arrows at targets on the grounds of the Shimogamo Shrine during the Aoi Matsuri.
19. It’s just walking up and down the narrow walkway in the Pontochō at dusk, trying to count the number of languages you hear spoken, catching a glimpse of a geiko or maiko, and wondering how the area must have looked during the Bakumatsu period. Pontochō is magical at dusk.
20. It’s the sudden sense of being overcome with awe and wonderment when you are led upstairs to the Sumiya’s second floor to see the beautiful settings where courtesans and geiko mingled with Edo period literati and elites.
This list can go on and on, but this is just a part of my “deep Kyoto”.
MICHAEL NAKAJIMA says
I am a 65 year old Japanese American (Sansei) Third generation who is planning my first short trip to Kyoto…first trip to Japan actually. I speak no Japanese, but have a few words and phrases from my first generation grand parents. :(. In this friendly city of Kyoto am I going to have trouble communicating? I once heard that the worse thing is for a non-Japanese speaking Sansei to try and speak Japanese. What are your thoughts on my situation. Love your Web Site and look forward to my trip next March/April. Sincerely Mike Nakajima
Michael Lambe says
I think whatever language you speak, it will depend on the attitude of the person you are talking to. If they are open-minded and willing to listen then you will have no problem. A smile goes a long way too. I would focus on the people that smile back and not worry too much about languages. Best of luck! I’m sure you’ll have a great trip!