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Kyoto had called out to me since childhood, a symbol of Japanese culture and Nintendo adventure. I’d projected onto it an ideal of virtual relaxation, a safe haven for adventurers from the hordes of monsters populating the surrounding worlds, where locals hung about markets trading gold collected from bushes for portions of rice and an ever-expanding and daunting array of swords and medieval weaponry; a place of perfumed ambiance where the locals would walk in the shadows of temples adorned with billowing flags, in the echo of the soft thud of drums; to the end of the street and back again in a repetitive animated loop, forever destined to recite the same catchphrase or piece of local lore no matter how many times you talked to them, a habit which reflected the limited capacity of 90’s technology more so than the traditional culture and manner of real-life Japan.
Like every other city in Japan, Kyoto is known for the fact that at some point in history it was once the nation’s capital. Much of the city is on a colour scale of brown from chocolate to sandy – the buildings, the cobbled streets, the banks and exposed rocks of the low-flowing Kamo River. The street colours radiate a charming dusky glow in the sun, and the city is carefully framed on the north and east sides by green hills peeking between the few skyscrapers of the downtown. Other than that it is generally quite low-rise; and across the river, the Higashiyama district contains much of the historic and religious touristy sights the city is famed for.
There’s a slow diligence to movement here. The people of Kyoto wait dutifully at traffic lights on empty narrow back-streets. Old folks pedal through the Imperial Gardens on low-rider fixie bikes, their legs flailing on the single gear that’s too low for their surprisingly powerful thrust. My usual power-walk gets gentler while I’m in the city. The quiet streets and architecture have a calming effect on the mind, and the women are tear-jerkingly beautiful.
Ladies in elegant kimono sweep shop-fronts. Groups of girls in yukata float along in flip-flops and cute mitten-socks with perfectly-trained walks, clutching handbags, iPhones and bottles of vending-machine coffee. I’m not sure if they have somewhere to be – a graduation, a wedding, or a funeral, for example – or if it’s just another form of formal wear. These traditionally-clad characters only stick out, of course, as the majority of the population are dressed in modern western ‘normal’ clothes, but are less worthy of remembrance and detract from the image I’m creating here, or that I create for myself as I walk through the streets, adopting the pace and airs of my surroundings. There are temples everywhere. The residents seem to be aware of their duties to their native city, its history and its image of great old Japan. People tell me Kyoto is an ‘older’ city than nearby Osaka – they mean in terms of the population demographics, not just the age of the buildings. There are a lot of old people here.
Anywhere I’ve ever travelled, I’d always be wondering what’s it like to live there. Driving or walking down a street – or staring out the window from a bus or a train – and picturing what it’d be like to live in that house right there, or that one over there, or that one on the hill up there. Visualising myself going through mundane routines such as the commute to work or the trip to the shop for the papers. Not content just to visit and pass through and observe and play the role of the tourist, I’d attempt to conduct a form of telepathy through the objects of the environment, imagining myself going to buy the papers or walk the dog. I don’t buy the papers, nor do I own a dog. But these are the things that occupy the mind as matters of importance, building a world in real-time like a child builds a Lego set. It’s always summer-time in these places, and you can always just sit on the stoop at the front of your house, content to watch the world go by. Going into the local Centra is the height of experience, it would be all you need.
Often wherever I’d live I’d be jealous of the tourists, freed from routine if only for a fleeting weekend, free to loll about St. Patrick’s Cathedral or get an ice cream in Temple Bar – things I had no interest in doing myself, I only wanted the freedom to do them – projecting a backstory of eternal unemployment or retirement-enabling wealth upon these random Spanish or French or American tourists, secretly just wishing I could enjoy a guilt-free pint of Guinness at 11 o’clock on a Wednesday morning, with nowhere I needed to be. In reality, I probably just hated my job.
And yet when I’d be on holidays myself I’d be jealous of the 9-to-5ers, jealous of the drudgery of a nice simple routine – from the viewpoint of a holiday, where so much of your time is spent in the soul-crushing role of the tourist. Forced and rushed and charged with going here and seeing that and meeting other people who haven’t the feintest clue of what’s going on, either in this country or in their own lives at home, just like me. Instead, wishing I didn’t have to do anything at all only sit and walk and talk around the ordinary places of the city – a normal routine, a normal life, oblivious to the would-be heroes on their holidays. To the constant traveller, a local walking down a residential street projects a serene air of order and dignity, a halo of homeliness and tidiness and dutiful role-player radiating from them.
On trains I’d see Japan’s exhausted salarymen dozing over their briefcases, children in perfect uniforms lining up in obedient order, and think how nice it would be to be herded into a school or office to be indoctrinated with the ethos of the corporate or academic institution, to never have to think again about what to wear or what to say or where to go, life just a series of physical and mental train journeys, until I could retire to a lodge in the mountains that I’d seen in a painting at some point in my life, where I’d never have to think about anything ever again. The street sweepers I’d envy most of all, their routines and their roles down to a fine art, no meetings or people or interruptions, just them and their craft – especially in Japan, where they wear the finest of civic uniforms and are kept in jobs for seemingly as long as they want or will live, which in Japan, of course, is a very long time.
Kyoto is an ideal canvas for such idyl daydreams, as around every corner a picture of traditional Japanese life is conveyed through the architecture new and old, the temples, the flowers, the gardens, the paintings, the trees – an origami watercolour where a wise old owl is always watching over at night, perched on a yellow moon. Such daydreaming is not just a wishing away of one’s own life; it is also the creation of an image of beauty, a living work of art which projects from your own mind onto the surrounding environment. If Pissaro or Monet or Van Gogh or Hopper can capture profound images of human life on a canvas, then why not one’s own mind? These daydreams are to art what conversations are to books.
I’d always wanted to live in Japan, so much so that I’d moved to Vietnam three years before – which sounds nearby but is actually a five hour flight capital to capital, a distance greater than any two places in Europe – for reasons that it’s hard to unravel after so long, but which I’ll get into later. Perhaps this is why, when I get to Kyoto, I end up gravitating towards the sort of routine which mimics what it might actually be like to live there. I join yoga classes in Japanese at a studio in the downtown, even though the staff strongly (but kindly) suggest I’d be better off going to the classes they have in English. I go for runs along the river and make myself a regular at the same ramen and curry shops, as well as the local combini of course, as the family-run guesthouse I’m staying on. I have conversations in shattered English with the motherly lady running the place, through a mix of Google translate, and a more traditional form of bridging language barriers: wild gesticulation. I give myself work to do: I wander with my backpack full of pens and notebooks and a laptop looking for cafés to write in, and some mornings I get coffee and pancakes in the McDonald’s on the corner like a depressed office worker. On the weekend I take a train to the mountains to the north of the city and go for a hike, a popular pastime for elderly Japanese people.
I start to do as the locals do and obey the rules and wait patiently at traffic lights. It gives you time to relax and enjoy your surroundings. The narrow back-alleys that zig-zag through Higashiyama function as full streets, though you could hop across them like a stream. They immaculately tarmacked and just wide enough for the box-shaped electric cars to zip down.
I stand at a set of traffic lights on the corner of one and stare up the road that stretches off into the horizon past dozens of doorways and the back entrances to gardens and houses, intersecting with and crossing over main roads and more traffic lights and more streets and blocks. Flanked by drooping telephone wires that all merge into one bunch, a repeating optical illusion of countless lives and journeys and homes and routines with addresses but no names or faces.
A single figure in a kimono ambles gently in the distance, her frame silhouetted against the evening sky. The moon is always shining. A background character just going to the end of the street in their peaceful neighbourhood, performing the simple animated routine they’re destined to carry out forever. A simple existence in a simple world, or so I imagine. The elevator jingles playing in convenience stores and restaurants sound like soft 8-bit loops from peaceful villages populated with elves and spirits wise-old men and simple routines. A city preserved in time, at least as I remember it, for that one week I almost felt like I lived there.
The traffic light goes green, but I’ve nowhere I need to be.
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