Last September

So I wrote this piece for a travel writing competition. The task was to describe a local connection in seven hundred words. My essay didn’t win, and after reading the choices of the judges, I’m reluctantly minded to agree. It doesn’t distill a moment: it’s more of a jumble of thoughts, as my writing tends to be. Having said that, it was a jumble I enjoyed writing, and it peoples a quiet moment in last summer’s travelogue. So I thought I’d share it with y’all instead.

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In Kyoto’s Capillaries

The first time, I came to Kyoto as a tourist, phone in hand, only a selfie-stick away from cliché. I walked in sacred bamboo groves, traced the ghost of a castle and drank in an arcade, but never stayed far from predetermined paths. The second time, I came as a guest, and the distinction proved important.

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I had never met Aroni before I arrived at his door, but he wasn’t the type who considered that a disadvantage. He welcomed me into his diminutive machiya (townhouse) in Funaoka, a northern suburb of Kyoto. Its light, tawny wooden panels gave it an ephemeral air, but this place was built to last, having survived since around 1810. Aroni himself was an inveterate dreamer. The son of Maori and white New Zealander parents, he had fled from his loving but complicated family over a decade before, and had set himself up as a jack-of-all-trades, designing, drawing, and organising in Kyoto’s underground music scene. Over time, he had gradually integrated into this industrious little community. Unlike most outsiders in Japan, he had become a local.

IMG_9081The streets of Japan’s suburbs are always narrow. Out here in Funaoka, they’re a dense network of capillaries, often little more than alleyways. Breaking through to a main artery, we visited a prosperous-looking bakery, where a couple of hundred yen bought rich poppy seed pastries laden with melted cheese. We wandered on through golden September sunshine, admiring Kyoto’s thousand-year love affair with wood. As we walked, Aroni suggested I join him as he met with a work client at Funaoka Onsen. The locally famous bath house isn’t particularly old, especially by Kyoto’s venerable standards, but it’s well-loved, and I was keen to soak in its atmosphere.

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As it happened, my host and his companion weren’t just here to destress and limber up in the healing waters. Instead, they launched into serious discussion about the details of a new web design project. To my surprise, I was shadowing a naked business meeting. I suddenly wondered how many deals had been struck behind the crimson curtains of Funaoka, between the steam and the decorative wooden facades. After a while, I detached myself, and chatted to Funaoka locals in my staccato Japanese.

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IMG_9093And so on to Honpō-ji, one of the countless medieval temples that barely turn an eye in the living archive that is Kyoto. What’s four hundred years, here or there? I caught the last rays of the afternoon sun, imprinting on curved wooden walls paled by time. I walked for a long time that evening, and by the time I made it to Teramachi district, darkness had fallen. I was meeting a friend who recently moved to Kyoto. Ichiro greeted me with his trademark sheepish smile, and together at Teramachi Daijoubu, we finished off Ma Po tofu, fragrant and simmering hot, to the unexpected soundtrack of Ebo Taylor’s roots afrobeat. Japan is full of tiny establishments like these, squeezed into attics and above shop awnings; and Kyoto is just so full of Japan.

The next day, we strolled across Funaoka-yama, the sacred hill at the heart of his community. Aroni showed me the tomb of Oda Nobunaga, first of Japan’s great warlord unifiers in the sixteenth century. It was marked with the family crest, not a dagger or roaring lion, but a quince flower. If I were a leader of samurai, I’d have picked a more terrifying emblem, but such is history. At the summit, we watched joggers and tai chi enthusiasts earning their good health, and looked down over Kyoto. Aroni told me more about the fierce activism and tangled relationships of his maternal family, and explained to me how this hill was used as a reference point for the laying out of the city, in line with sacred geometry.

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Later, watching sunrise from the deck of my ferry, I thought about Aroni, and Kyoto. It occurred to me that you can visit the bustling heart of a city and see almost nothing of community. I grew up in suburbia, and often resented it, but you often learn more about what makes a city tick when you get lost in its snaking suburban streets.

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