I finally found my homesickness. It’s for Autumn.
Airline miles and another Singapore public holiday aligned to make it possible for me to head to Japan for a weekend last November. I was going to attempt to join the tourists for koyo and momiji (leaves and red leaves.) In other words, I was going to be a leaf-peeper.
But Kyoto is not nearly as pretty as I anticipated. Modern Japanese architecture is blocky, fond of concrete, and blunt. I arrive at night and am disappointed as I wandered the modern streets. It feels cold, blunt and if not careless then definitely lacking in grace. Not at all what I expected from Japan.
It isn’t until the next day when I am brave enough to turn down an alley (usually a no-no in a strange city) that I find an entire other world. Most of Kyoto’s extraordinary scenes are in the local, stone-paved alleys and back streets. The traditional houses are subtle and comprised of graceful wood screens and blended beams. Paper screens and neatly balanced cloth panels, perfectly aligned wooden slippers at inner courtyards, and warm lanterns guide locals and tourists down these ancient alleyways with subtle and sublime aesthetics.
After a few days I realize the impact of Japan is as much the culture and the aesthetics of graceful interactions as it is from the architecture (though now I’m finding lovely examples of that as well.)
Just by being briefly immersed in these surroundings I find myself trying to hold my body in a more graceful way. I’m more careful about the line of my arms when paying for an item, and I watch the ladies and locals to learn how to bow. I’m trying to find an economy and flow in my movements so that I can move more smoothly through this world of controlled and graceful beings. I align my belongings and shoes more carefully rather than let them carelessly clump by the door. I do not, however, even attempt to kneel before opening and closing screens, a gorgeous movement to watch that would likely have me pitching straight through the paper screens. But I enjoy the short dance because that is the point. Enjoying the beauty of these small, mundane moments.
One afternoon while walking through a food market a shop keeper comes rushing over and waves me away from the cucumbers I was trying to photograph. Embarrassed, I back up, as it’s clear she doesn’t want me to take a photo. (Because who would have thought you’d need permission to photograph cucumbers??) But then she adds more cucumbers to the tray, adjusts and aligns them quickly, then spreads her hands and nods inviting me to photograph them again. Now that they look nice enough to meet her aesthetic, you see.
I also kept up on my mission to try a massage in every country here, and since I couldn’t quite coordinate a trip to the traditional onsen baths, I decided on a shiatsu massage instead. Like Thai massages, shiatsu takes place with the subject fully clothed in a pajama-like outfit. It’s a pressing and angling style of massage instead of a stroke style. It’s also the best neck massage I have ever had. That massage also ended up being quite critical, because I had to all but run up the Fushimi Inari shrines on Mt. Inari the night before. 1200 steps later, my calves were not pleased. Although my calves cramp for days, luck ends up on my side because I descend after dark (Mt. Inari is open 24 hours a day) and stumble into an authentic Shinto ceremony, witnessed only by a few faithful and even fewer random tourists like me. A quiet moment that isn’t meant to be for tourists and which I feel both privileged to witness and a bit like an intruder. I do my best to remain gracefully in the background.
This view of Japan starts to seep into many cracks in my personality while I visit. Slow. Move with more grace. Witness and appreciate the subtle grace around me.