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Journals from Doshisha University, Japan

2011-08-17 An American in Kyoto

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The spirit of Kyoto embodied in a maiko (apprentice geisha).

It took a few relaxing days of summer break for me to realize I had not adjusted well to the heat. I lost my appetite and with it a considerable amount of weight, which for my body type is not a healthy thing. My body felt hot to the touch and I couldn’t seem to drink enough water. I was dizzy and had no energy. In that state I somehow made it through final exams! But a funny thing I noticed was that my Kyoto friends seemed somehow to relish my suffering: “Well, Kyoto is hot, after all.”

I learned quickly the way to make a Kyoto person happy in light conversation is to affirm that Kyoto is, even in matters of excruciating summer heat, uniquely #1. In a land where “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down” and homogeneity is so praised, I do believe that somewhere in the Japanese mind is a deep longing for uniqueness. Every prefecture and city in Japan has its meibutsu, some unique dish or cooking style, that is advertised on TV and made into convenient packages for vacationers' omiyage (souvenirs). Japanese as a language belongs to Japan so exclusively, if you say “I love the Japanese language,” your Japanese listener will be flattered and reply “Oh, thank you!” Few foreigners achieve Japanese citizenship, because, as everyone knows just by looking at their faces, people from other countries cannot become Japanese. Japan is somehow obsessed with projecting uniqueness and exclusivity.

The claim to uniqueness is especially strong in Kyoto. Never mind that the old Kyoto families (we’re talking at least 10 generations) have all but disappeared, never mind that all the famous temples and shrines are remakes and renovations of the originals—Kyoto is still the miyako, the old capital of Japan. Kyoto is a city without stain or blemish. Kyoto people are reserved and genteel, and they speak the sophisticated and lovely Kyoto dialect. Kyoto is not to be lumped into the Kansai area along with Osaka and Kobe, which are mere garish merchant cities with no share in Kyoto’s Heian-period glory. The locations of Kyoto’s rivers and main streets, the conducting of its major Aoi and Gion festivals, have not changed since time immemorial. Even the Americans recognized its immeasurable value and spared it from bombing during the War. Kyoto is unique!

Somehow, even in a little conversation with a Kyoto person about their own city, the above is all implied in their modest words. But for all that, to me Kyoto is like a beautiful geisha woman with a finger held to her lips, “shh.” She is mysterious and full of secrets. You can never be sure of her true thoughts. I have heard hints of poverty and corruption that make my skin crawl, but in Japan what is not spoken out loud is not known and never happened. The geisha is a professional. She hides flaws under a lovely façade of makeup and pretty speech. It seems to me everyone in Kyoto works hard to preserve and project the ideal image of their beloved city. There are even strict building codes to ensure that no new buildings, either by their height or style, interrupt Kyoto’s traditional image. Proof that I too have fallen prey to the geisha’s charms, I cannot quite criticize her for such behavior, as an American might want to. It’s easy to see it’s all being done out of a sincere love for the beautiful miyako.

So, if any of my readers have the courage to visit Kyoto in midsummer, be sure to please your hosts by complaining about the heat. Show off your sweat-drenched hanky and emphasize you’ve never experienced anything like it. Remember they aren’t smiling at your suffering, they’re just glad you too think Kyoto is #1.

~Leah Sedy

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