A FRENCHMAN WHO LIVES in Australia is looking for a jazz club in downtown Kyoto. He pensively inspects a folded map, looks towards the corner of Sanjo and Gokomachi, and then eyes me. A black saxophone case is slung on his shoulder.
“Do you speak English?” he asks, a muted sense of urgency between his scattered accents. I tell him I do and a relieved smile spreads across his face — the kind one might get upon finding their emergency cigarette at the end of a hard day. “Oh man, that’s great!” he says, pausing for a moment to enjoy this good fortune. But at his second question, Do you know your way around here?, it becomes clear this celebration may have been premature.
He’s supposed to meet friends at eight o’clock at the venue, and it’s supposed to be right here. Janice and I lend him our eyes, sweeping the intersection once over and even looking at the map ourselves. But no dice. We’re just wrapping up our second day in the city and our local knowledge is thin. We wish our new friend good luck and start on our way back to the ryokan.
Then Jan sees it — Le Club Jazz (yes, that really is the name), on the second floor above an Italian restaurant overflowing with lubricated wedding party merriment, groomsmen outside chatting with glowing faces. I run down the street and catch up with our international musician and point him in the right direction. Champagne bubbles of thanks and excitement flow in return, and we consider checking out the club ourselves as we say a more final farewell. But we’ve been exploring since the morning, and a hot bath and our futon are singing a shamisen siren song.
I pulled back the sleeve of my yukata and dug my chopsticks into breakfast: salty pan-fried salmon, sweet yellow squares of tamago and mild lumps of tofu dressed in soy sauce and chopped green onions. Never had the words room service been thus embodied. Hard-working women had knocked on our door at eight that morning in cheerful voices and broken English. They threw open the sliding windows to let in a deep inhalation of crisp air as they tore the sheets off our mattresses and folded the bedding into the closet, then got to the work of laying out our meal. A fresh pot of tea and a large bowl of rice accompanied an array of petite dishes and delicate flavors. All while we sat and observed in our green bathing clothes.
We stepped out into the light of morning just over an hour later, still full and with only the vague notion of an itinerary. Passing over the subdued waters of the Kamo-gawa, we wandered towards the Heian Shrine by unmarked sidestreets. I was unable to shake my fascination with the dwellings that stood in between — four-story apartments meticulously covered in what looked like bathroom tiles; dilapidated wooden storefronts with sliding doors; newer, colder buildings constructed of brick. As I lined up a shot of one balcony strung with a rainbow of wrinkled laundry, a woman emerged and I sheepishly put away my Nikon. I offered a little bow, she returned a confused smile.
The Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art was closed because it was Sunday, but the chalky, oxidized copper roof that formed the annex’s upper edges was in itself visually arresting. It made the structure feel imposing, imperial. The wintergreen eaves curled skyward, like a silent assertion of Heavenly authority. In the courtyard, a Western man led two friends in their morning Tai Chi.
As we neared Heian Jingu (Peace Shrine), what struck me first was that it was entirely tangerine. I had never seen a temple painted such a color, yet those vermilion hues were characteristic of the many Shinto holy places we would see throughout our trip. Technically speaking, since Janice and I did not enter the grounds through the torii — a looming arch a hundred yards or so to the south of the shrine — we did not pass into the sacred realm of spirits. But I made a go of it anyway, washing my hands in icy water to cleanse the soul, donating a coin and saying a prayer before the shrine’s holy grounds. What I prayed for I couldn’t really say: vague wishes for happiness and health flooded into the darkness behind my eyelids, but the words never materialized into something meaningful. Turning to leave, Jan and I saw a new baby wrapped in blankets and the arms of his grandmother, being carried away from a blessing ceremony out into the December world of humans.
The afternoon took shape as we shoveled down fried pork cutlets and shrimp. In the pale blue light of the diner’s kitchen, cooks stood in their short-order chef hats, resting a moment away from the heat of the grill. A man drank coffee and read the paper. We thumbed through our guidebook and decided to follow a walk outlined in its pages through Southern Higashiyama, skirting along the green edge of mountain and touring some of the most important temples in Japanese Buddhism.
The cutting, reflective silence that emanates from the world’s holy places — those so designated and otherwise — does not easily lend itself to written description. Attempts to do so are often riddled with fumbling, inadequate language or deficient personal allegory. A better method is perhaps the simpler one; plain illustration, words like the unencumbered mind of one practicing zazen, of one who sees only the wall in front of him.
The approach to Chion-in was grand in every way: flights of stone stairs and a towering wooden gate stained just a shade lighter than pitch. Janice ascended as I tried to capture the arch’s supernal presence in megapixels. A few shutter clicks later and I too made my way up to an airy clearing, where the soaring rooftop of the temple itself seemed to best the nobility of the mountain.
I unlaced my hiking boots and made my way into the main hall. A monk sat before a gilded shrine, focused on the business of enlightenment as though unaware of the spectators who filtered in and out. Incense hung heavy in the air; the monk’s chant rose above, crescendoed into the thudding punctution of a drumbeat, and then resumed again. Momentary ruminations on the meaning of the sound, the meaning of simply being there fizzled into sunlight and distraction. Touching the eternal would have taken more than a few years under a temple roof — a few minutes gave me only a glimmer.
We continued on our walk, passing through what (according to our guidebook) would become a festival grounds once winter gave way to spring and sakura blossoms. A massive stone statue of Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, rose above a memorial commemorating those who died in World War II. Heading south, we found ourselves on the edge of a neighborhood from another era; painted Geisha took delicate steps past noodle houses and shops selling traditional sweets. We munched on fresh miso rice crackers wrapped in laver and allowed ourselves to be caught up in a wave of pedestrians similarly astounded by the feeling of history living and breathing around them. We wound up into the hillside, following our eyes and stomachs into delicious storefronts, all while the sun began migrating towards the other hemisphere.
Had we planned it, it wouldn’t have been nearly so impressive — we might have felt the need to make a moment out of it, the eagerness to fulfill expectation. But our arrival at Kiyomizu-dera on the edge of sunset came as a genuine surprise (we hadn’t even known we were heading in the temple’s direction), and it struck a sublime note that seemed to hum into the night.
We stepped up to a sweeping view of the Kyoto skyline just as the horizon was being traced in pink and the mountain behind us was bathed in an empyreal glow. Everywhere around us, couples and friends were asking others to take pictures for them in the fading daylight (Janice and I made such requests, and returned the favor). There was a festive air floating around the temple, solemn though it was made to be.
The city transformed into a cluster of lights as night fell. Young men stood in the darkness next to their rickshaws, waiting for passengers. We began our slow walk back as something like karma aligned our path with that of a traveling musician.