TRAFFIC! by Alma R. H. Reyes
“Even in Kyoto
hearing the cuckoo's cry
I long for Kyoto. ---by Matsuo Bashō
The summer heat had really invaded Japan in the last months that all we can hope for is that it will soon be replaced by cool days and the early reds and yellows of maple leaves. In Japan, when we speak of autumn, I imagine the Tateyama Alps, Nikko, Okutama or Karuizawa, among others, but for me, the most beautiful Japanese autumn is found in Kyoto. Though I have experienced the Kyoto “koyo” (autumn leaves) season many times in November, this year, I had a nostalgic glimpse of summer Kyoto instead last July.
Of course, it was hot and humid! But, unlike Tokyo’s congested highways and tall, concrete buildings, Kyoto’s surrounding mountains and rivers made the summer ambience somehow more relaxing and peaceful. Maybe because Kansai was my first home in Japan, and I lived in Kyoto for five years before coming to Tokyo, that returning to Kyoto each time feels like romancing a memory. The first place I always want to stop at is the Kamogawa River between Shijo and Sanjo Dori. I am always awed by the restaurants with yuka wooden verandas on stilts and their hanging orange-lit lanterns, flanking the river bank. In fact, I never experienced eating in any of these restaurants, and always wonder when that chance will ever come. Kamogawa River looked prettier and better maintained. There are still no benches around so that people can sit directly on the bank and look out to the river. You can see people reading, writing, chatting, sleeping, or lovers cooing. Someone may be playing a drum, saxophone or guitar. Last time in July, there was a girl in ballet attire practicing her pirouettes without hesitance. I also noticed there were more gaijins now—in every corner, every minute—which, probably made me feel more at home. During my student days, I spent many days along this river reading and writing. Sitting by this river always gave me peace, a certain calmness, and a rare moment to connect with the natural surroundings.
From Kamogawa River, I usually walk down Sanjo Dori and Kiyamachi Dori, and amuse myself with the sight of small traditional shops selling old-fashioned o-sembe crackers, bamboo combs, old brushes, kimonos, pottery, pink-white-green o-dango (skewered small mochi balls), o-tsukemono (Japanese pickles), mizu-yokan (thick, jellied dessert), and lots and lots of cafés displaying matcha (green tea)-flavored parfaits, ice cream, pastries, etc. Yumm...There are also modern outdoor cafés now, including their Starbucks that boasts of a huge veranda overlooking Kamogawa River. Nice!
I never miss Pontocho-Dori, the unique narrow alley stretching from Sanjo Dori to Shijo Dori. This alley was flanked by many ochaya teahouses and was a prominent Geisha district since the 1500s. Now, you find bars, jazz clubs, restaurants and exclusive dining places serving kaiseki ryori (traditional multi-course Japanese dinner), known for riverside dining. I am always happy to see that the inu yarai bamboo screens against the walls of bars and restaurants are still intact since the 17th century. These are protective structures against mud and dirt and dogs peeing on the walls. The ochaya may not necessarily mean a teahouse but an exclusive private dinner-Geisha entertainment-dining place usually by invitation. Maybe because I am not a man that I do not recall having the privilege of experiencing such a culture, but if you are lucky enough to enter an ochaya, be prepared to cash out 500,000-800,000 yen for a night. And, since I cannot afford such pleasure, I just appreciate its architecture of bengara goshi wooden latticed windows, sudare reed screens, and the noren curtains on the doors that keep these ochaya very private and hidden, that you cannot see the inside. You can also see many more ochaya in the Gion district.
I always treasure the fact that Kyoto is such a pleasant walking city, where you can move from one area to another with ease and leisure—such contrast from the buzz and rush of hurrying Tokyoites on subways. The mix of old and new does not come as close as in Kyoto, and it is in seeing the old that makes me feel relieved that I am truly in Japan. The sight of temples, shrines, narrow alleys and traditional houses refresh my memory of why I came to Japan in the first place, and what I had loved most about its culture and sights. I could only wish we could have more of that traditional flavor in Tokyo…but, that is another topic to write about.
As signs of a modernizing Kyoto are becoming more visible through the years (take the modern Kyoto Station, for example), I sometimes wonder if the city can maintain its antiquated roots and rustic qualities amidst a growing generation of fashion queens, otaku kings and liberalized ideas. How would Kyoto appear after 20-30 years?
This autumn, treat yourself to the best array of crimson reds and elegant yellows of Kyoto’s koyo. Everywhere temples and shrines are lit at night so the maple leaves glitter against the dark skies. Do not miss a trip to Arashiyama, Ohara and Hiei-san. And, after a tiring day of picture-taking and walking, stop by a traditional Kyoto udon-ya, have a sip of shochu (Japanese distilled spirit) in one of the bars facing the river, then return to your ryokan, slip into your yukata and feel the fine tatami mat while your dreams take you away to your next Kyoto adventure.
Have a romantic autumn!