Alone In Kyoto

A penny for wish:
A wish, it won’t make you a soldier.
A pretty kiss or a pretty face
Can’t have it’s way;
There’re tramps like us who were born to pay.
—Bruce Springsteen


I rested in Hiroshima
at a youth hostel with WiFi, showers, and a rack on the rooftop where I might dry my washed clothes, though the highlight was surely that I shared the facilities with two English girls and that we stayed up late drinking beer from the vending machine and chatting about nonsense. In the morning I took my leave. One girl said something that I wondered about.

“She said you look like a shabby bastard. She said that yesterday, too.”

“Well I guess I could do worse.”

I had a threadbare look and a wild countenance, and the stories of my thrifty adventures won laughs and admiration but as little feminine affection as might be expected.

I was off for Kyoto, the ancient capital of imperial Japan, in the old south-central heartland called Kansai. Jean of Paris, who had been in Japan four months, had told me about a deal that Japanese Railways offered in October, to ride the slow trains all day for a minimal price, but it had expired on the seventeenth and this was the twenty-first, a Thursday. It would have cost six thousand yen, about eighty dollars, for a ticket to Kyoto, and twice that to ride the lightning fast Shinkansen. So I paced around the train station until I saw a New Yorker I knew. He had a John Travolta haircut and wore a tight black shirt from the 1950s and was dragging a rollerbag down the line for tickets.

“I think I’m going to hitchhike,” I told him. “I’ll take the train a few stops outside Hiroshima then go to the highway. I don’t know.”

The New Yorker coolly approved of my plan, but as he already had a rail pass, and as this wasn’t really his thing, he declined to join me.

I bought a ticket to Onomichi but did not get off when the train halted there. I rode to a small town past Fukuyama, and then dropped my haversack on the platform and fiddled with it until I was alone there. Then I slid down the grassy hill, around the ticket booth, and onto a quiet street that led through a tunnel to the highway, on the other side of the tracks. This was the method I devised to travel cheaply around Japan—taking advantage of the trust and respect inherent to that country’s prosperous people to overcome the deficiencies of my greedy nation’s currency—and I would employ it a number of times in the future.

In the meantime, I hitchhiked with an old couple to a convenience store parking lot, where I met a young mother with her son who took me down the highway a long way. Two teenage girls took me to the Ide Station, near Aioi, and by then it was after dark and I was barely halfway to Konsai. I took the trains onward, arriving after ten at the overwhelming train station, and feasting on discounted sushi in the outer courts.

I laid out my bedroll on the concrete, a dozen paces from a dignified old couple who had done the same, and slept despite the chilling air and the roar and whistle of the trains. My restfulness could not overcome, however, the disruption of a volleyball team that began to practice around my resting place just around dawn. To their credit they never looked round as I packed my things and shouldered my bag, but a weird shame and spite stole over me, placing me in a foul, judgmental mood on the day of the Jidai Matsuri—the Festival of Ages.

I tried to amend my mood with a large breakfast: a bowl of rice and beef with pickled ginger and miso soup. Then I put my things in a locker at the train station and walked north toward the imperial palace, preferring the back streets. A woman squared the hedge along the curb, and the road was channeled so narrowly between the buildings that it might look like London, if it were not so nuanced with careful attention and open sentiment.

Kyoto is not so large a city, hemmed in by hills and tradition; and because it escaped the American firebombs during the Second World War, by its place on that exclusive list of potential atomic targets, it retains all its old charms. These can be observed like the strata of rocks, different materials denoting the different ages the city has weathered, but all ground together like gravel. Building materials ranged from aged and undecorated wood under eaves of rounded tile, to cement walls with wooden frames, and bits of ancient brick. It was a rather ugly hodgepodge, but a closer glance at the alleys, the courtyard gardens, the corners of the rooftops, the smallest shrines, and the unmapped places revealed Kyoto’s charms.

A man laid out his lunch on a white cloth on the park bench next to him, and a tabby cat was curled up asleep on his leather bag. Willows and maples mourned autumn along the canals, and creepers twined about the metal of the window grates with heart-shaped leaves. A pretty face blew smoke out through the mesh on a fourth floor balcony. Across the row of buildings, joggers paced the banks of the Kamo River, and teens congregate on the stepping stones. The roadwork crew bowed to passing pedestrians, who nodded politely in turn. There were lanterns everywhere, pebbly gardens and latticed doors.

The ramen shops began to steam, with great tureens of hakata pork broth, out from the short curtain in the portal. They were long and narrow, counters and stools and quick economic meals, though always polite in taking orders, burlesque in handing out food, and gregarious in saying farewell. I ate noodle soup in a neighborhood of shops close to the palace. There were bikes parked everywhere, outside book shops and calligraphy stationary stores and small kitchens and fashion boutiques and French boulangeries.

From the marketplace I crossed some narrow neighborhoods and came to the gate of the palace. Wide gravel trails, crowded with Japanese and Western tourists, turned back around hillocks and tranquil copses to a weird gathering along the walls of the Sentō Palace.

The Festival of Ages was a celebration of the long-expired Heian court, in all its costumed finery. There were samurai in crested armor, bannermen in vested uniforms, piled spears and parked palanquins, geisha and little handmaidens being painted, and everyone otherwise resting, napping, chatting, or eating packaged lunches in preparation for the great parade. I love the romantic irony of anachronisms, and so I delighted in the scenes of the noble caste and their retainers lounging about the lawns of the imperial palace. I spent an hour photographing it and in truth enjoyed this preparation more than the eventual parade.

They proceeded down from the gates of the palace toward the southern gate to the palace grounds, the route lined with spectators, who also stood on the iron posts meant to stop traffic. The lords waved from their carriages, and one nobleman on an excited mare was tumbled off into the road and sent away with a sore back, leaning on the shoulders of some guardsmen. Then came a marching band: eighteen flutes and five drums, followed by bannermen and men-at-arms with rifles, swords, and daggers; old noblemen in pale blue vests with daggers tucked in their skirts; ranked companies of samurai in long robes or armor or straw cloaks. There was a minister with a train so long that his guardian walked ten paces behind him, and two more ministers followed in more modest robes, with a dozen guardsmen in flat straw hats, their left hands on hilts. Acrobats in blue tunics shouted as they tossed from man to man their high banners, which looked like long-handled mops. Behind came a long line of swordsmen in flat hats and olive, blue, or black jackets, with a black horseman here and there. Some carried chests of treasure, hung from long poles. After the last of these had passed came two bannermen in white, who preceded a sedan displaying three ghost-faced geisha, pushed along by their attendants. The madames walked triumphantly behind, then the lesser geisha with their maiko handmaidens. Another column of flower-print grandees and guards came along after the ladies, in red or gold or blue or black and all the long-sleeved drapery of Heian Kyoto, and in their midst was a massive coach, all sealed up, that the single hitched ox refused to pull unless he himself was dragged down the road.

There were wise ministers and mighty samurai, with high-plumed hats and higher banners, but I will not weigh down the Reader with their complete enumeration—Gulliver’s way of excusing boredom with a subject. As I left the field the line began to slow and stagger: the police had not closed the roads of the city, and once they left the grounds those mounted knights and banner-waving squires had to wait at the intersections for a green light.

Another festival began that evening in the village of Kurama just north of Kyoto. I had arranged to meet Jean of Paris there, but the erratic work schedule that the Frenchman had worked up to pay for his stay in Osaka disturbed our plans. (I had also arranged to meet Sergi of Terragona somewhere in Japan, but I moved so slowly that the Catalonian had left for Australia by the time I arrived in Konsai.)

Yet I was far from lonely, finding the train to Kurama. A great crowd had gathered, evenly split in number between Westerners and Nipponese, in front of the first station on the line north. Conductors moved efficiently through the winding line to distribute tickets, and it all moved with the crowded order characteristic of the Eastern Orient. I stood on the train—and for all those packed around me could not have fallen even if I intended to—as it turned into a valley like a serpent’s tail, between green hills and through Ichihara, Ninose, and Kibuneguchi, ending at the feet of the mountains in Kurama.

The moon was a fuzzy silver disc behind the clouds, lit gray against the black brush of the tree-lined ridges. On the hill above the station, the small town flickered with a gold, pagan light and resounded with revelry and tumult, even before the ceremony had started. Most of this came from tourists, jostling for camera angles, and most of the townspeople still prepared for their roles. This festival, the Kurama-no-Himatsuri, or the Fire Festival of Kurama, was the only reason people came to their otherwise charmingly backwoods hamlet, and had once been a quaint mystery.

Immediately on stepping off the train, I was filled with a world-weary rage at what the festival had become—a crowd, a circus, a fetid swamp of breath. There were police and lines of yellow tape, and a great horde between, lining up to take the road to the center of town. Groups flaked off from the shuffling flood to cling to the yellow tape like fat in an artery, in case any event might pass down the lane that the cops kept cleared. Fires burned in braziers here and there, each surrounded by a swarm of vulturous photographers. And there were so many foreigners, drinking beers and complaining, and so many out-of-towners with cameras—I fought my way out of this bullshit mob and found some peace on the village’s southern stretch, downhill from the town square on the road to Kibuneguchi.

Here, where few tourists ventured for fear of missing some later marvel up above, the families prepared for the spectacle they were about to perform. Before each house there was a carefully tended brazier, and a few yards had bonfires burning high as a man, with green trees sticking out from a tent of trimmed logs and an upward shower of sparks. There were the torches that would later be lit and carried: tapering bundles six feet long and three across at the widest end, of stripped pine bound together with some flexible bit of wood. The families were all donning their costumes. The women wore kimonos, the older men feudal vestments, and the torch-bearers had on loincloths and shirts made of ropes. Anything else would have been singed to shreds during the ceremony.

I reflected on what had happened to change this once local peculiarity into a circus or sideshow. It was as if any group of humans on the earth that remained behind or retained some unique character was a stud or a depression in a level field of conformity, either stamped down by prejudice and pretentious disdain, or filled in by the hoi polloi of humanity—modern men with beer in cans and cameras on straps, out to ruminate on a tradition that had become a foreign novelty.

At one corner I watched two boys light a torch in a bonfire, with a constant commentary from their mothers, who adjusted the boys’ costumes even as they lifted the burning brand, and continued to do so up until they slowly edged out of the yard with that torch over their shoulders. The boys were beaming with adventure, the mothers wringing their hands in despair.

The photographers rushed down like there was a breach in the castle walls, and I found my cultural complaints overflowing onto an amenable American woman who happened to be standing by that corner with a banana, as averse to the crowd as I, though not so maddened by it.

We later moved into the immobile sideline that had formed along the road, stretching from the center of town past the train station and south into that quiet lane where the march would begin. It was crowded and noisy, kept back by a line of serious uniforms and a yellow tape that must have been either sacrosanct or incredibly dangerous, for all the fuss they made over it. I hated this intensely. There was a group of young Americans to one side, a half pretty face and two rumpled boys, fuming with a dialog of unimaginative wit derived from reruns of South Park and exhaustive tours of the Internet. A fat man was muttering behind me: “. . . and when we got off, they just guided us down here. That door behind them leads right to the center of town, but we all went down here like sheep.” I considered this with slitted eyes, my mind mapping the possibilities of an excursion. I am one who hates waiting in lines, and I would brave any hardship to avoid it.

So I stepped under the tape and over to where some men were standing around a brazier. A policeman came over with his index finger out and would not leave me alone until I moved. There was some laughter and whispering in the crowd, from the direction of the Americans, and it put me in a rage. Instead of returning to my spot, I shoved through the crowd on the track down from the train station, and went on through that door the fat man had observed that led right to the center of town.

Now Kurama had been well-organized by the policemen, who by a few barricades turned it into a mazy counter-clockwise loop, so that visitors entered one way, wandered up the hill in a slow-shuffling crowd, and turned back down into the station from the square atop the hill. The fat man was right: one might get directly to the heart of the town by going against the flow of traffic, going clockwise I mean, and see all the best parts of the festival without the wait. I meant to go back and tell the American woman, but by then the parade of torches had begun, a heathenish blur of fire and gold under the trees, and the way out from the train station was all crowded with photographers, suddenly as stolid and implacable as linemen. There was no getting back out to the street. So I went alone.

I walked along the slope above a path, passing the line of the retreating crowd, and I brushed past the guards by saying, with irrefutable confidence, that I had to meet someone or just shouting, “My friend!” and pointing wildly as I slipped around their every gestures. Finally I made it to the square, just in time to see the parade go past and into the beating heart of the night’s climax.

There were the torch bearers in their naked outfits, shimmying from side to side and chanting, “Saiya, sairo,”—Festival, good festival—with each sway of their heavy, burning burdens. Men and women in kimonos followed, and there were men carrying great banners and golden emblems on up to the top of the hill. Escaping the fence of spectators, I ducked across the street through a gap in the procession to an empty patio and stood there with an old Romanian who had been living for twelve years in Toronto. The rest of the torches passed right in front of us, and the Romanian thought they were going to come back, and just go up and down the street all night, but was not sure. None of the gaijin present, and few of the Japanese travelers, had any idea what this festival was about or what would happen.

I told the Romanian I had been to the country he had left behind, and he said, “It can never be a country again”—communism, the great leveler of men, had ironed out its brain. He had found a Romanian community in Toronto, lonely aliens who stayed together to pick bitterly away at one another, but eventually worked up the confidence to make his way alone in a city of immigrants.

“Canada is the worst of both worlds,” he said. “They have all the British stiffness of mind, with none of their subtlety, and American naivety and mass culture, without any of the friendly warmth you see in American people. . . . Shall we walk?”

We went up to where the torches had gone, and the cops had blocked off the square to visitors. Beyond there was an open space, then a line of costumed locals, and then a massive bonfire in the middle of an intersection. The torchbearers marched around it and up some stone terraces to the right, hidden from my view behind trees and some scaffolding, so that I could not get a good look at what they were doing. All the visitors were hustled into the left side of the street, behind some tape, by the hands of the policemen, and not permitted to get any closer to the fire or into the crowd that had gathered before it in the square.

I was looking around for some way of climbing around this barricade when the Japanese found a much better one. The front ranks apparently all rushed at once into that open space on the road, where they could get a much better view. The cops were shoved back, and they all started screaming through megaphones. There were more up in the scaffolding, roaring down at us from towers, with bullhorns for artillery. I ran in as well, but the cops had closed the gap by the time I got there, leaving the Romanian, some old women, and a few photographers in a pocket surrounded by police. I got right in the cops’ faces so I could take some pictures and get a look at the ceremony.

The men were all standing in ranks up the stepped terraces, holding their torches over their heads. The wood showered them with sparks as it burned down and even began to collapse. When it was close to death, the team threw it on the bonfire below. Sometimes they did not make it and were covered with burning embers as the bindings gave way. I savored the view—“If only those fool Americans could see me now!” I thought with low vengeance.

As I observed this, the cops were shoving at me and howling in my ears with bullhorns. I tried to push by three of them, saying that my friend was over there, but they shoved me back and looked enraged. More tourists began to break through on the other end of the street, and when the cops were distracted a sly old Japanese lady grabbed my arm and pulled me into their besieged pocket. I stood in the rearguard of the salient when the cops returned to get us out of there. They kept grabbing at us and shouting with bullhorns into our faces. Finally some of the costumed locals came over and politely asked us to move, and held the arms of the old ladies to move them back into line. The bemused cops put down the bullhorns.

I chose this time to stage my escape: I was not about to wait in that long slow line snaking back to the train station. I climbed down a wall behind a parking lot and crossed the crowd, up a hill and into the woods, past some cut wood and a court of dogs who let loose their snapping jaws from chains and cages. Trains of three cars pulled in empty to the station and departed like Holocaust boxcars, and there was a raving mob in the yard of the station all waiting to leave on the meager line. I saw the Romanian walking off down the highway—“I’m not waiting in that line. I’ll just go to the next town and get on at the station there.”

It was a warm night and the moon had turned the cloud banks into a great silver lampshade, and after a while talking to those English girls I had met in Hiroshima, I followed the Romanian’s plan without regret. I fell in line with a young, very pretty, and rather sweet girl named Yuki, who was walking home to the next village with her mother and older sister, and we charmed each other in pidgin. A grin and a laugh cheered my heart. It is the simple truth of my nature that with a good breakfast and a smile from a pretty girl, I am in the best of moods: so from the bitter angst of morning I ended the day free and full of favor. I would have married Yuki on the spot. But I slipped away to the village train station and found a place on a crowded carriage, where I could only see things to adore in a family from Oregon that lived at a nearby university.

Well some Japanese dames showed me the express train back to the Kyoto Station. The three Americans, the loud-mouthed girl and her fawning supplicants, who I had not forgiven for laughing at me much earlier, leaped aboard at the last minute. I made sure they knew where they were going. While the boys tried to fold down the doorway seats in the crowded train the girl asked me, “What did you think of the festival? We thought it was not worth the effort. All that waiting in line, for nothing.”

Rather than agreeing with her and denigrating the spectators and ranting about the ruination of culture—suddenly I was in too good a mood for that dark business—I dissented slyly and gave an account of all my adventures and all that I had seen and they had missed: how I had avoided the line for the great fire and the line for the tram, by bold adventures, leaving out only Yuki’s merry smile. The girl seemed at a loss. One of her stooges said of the fold out chair, “It won’t open. The thing just won’t open.”

“Well, we’re going to go up to the elderly seats. Later.”

“Later,” I said. I thought to myself, “You asshole, bragging like that,” but in a smug and satisfied way. I had after all been able to rub my victory in the faces of my detractors. Ah, Triumph: but one taste did corrupt mighty Caesar!

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