Writers In Kyoto

English-language authors in Japan’s old imperial capital

Writers in focus

Haiku pics (Mayumi Kawaharada)






An old well left

In an empty land—

A cherry petal drops into it.


Desolate lands,

Beaten by the rain––

A dayflower blooms


Construction noise

Echoing in the rain—

A machiya screams


A Cicada’s voice

Lost in the noise–

Demolishing another machiya


The cicadas’ call and respond

To the rhythms of a backhoe––

Kyoto, bound in choir, 2016


All the rattle and crash in Kyoto

Covered by sudden snow–

Christmas night


A cherry tree in bloom

Welcomes the breeze––

An empty elementary school


Trace the Samurai’s footsteps

Across the asphalt jungle—

The heat shimmers in mirage


A parking lot

Where a Samurai’s house stood…

Autumn rain


A Shinto shrine lay

Among the skyscrapers —

Golden Gingko valley


The Buddha keeps watch

Over the urban hustle and bustle––

Snowed rooftop temple


Twelve-storied condos

Spout up across the city—

Urban bamboo shoots


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Alex Kerr’s book launch (Another Kyoto)


Kathy Sokol, who collaborated on Another Kyoto, talks of how the book came about through Alex’s explanations of the places they visited. The event was held in the very fine and well-preserved old machiya in which she is living temporarily.

October 2 saw the book launch of Alex Kerr’s new book, Another Kyoto.  A packed audience hung on his every word as he ran through his thoughts on Kyoto and Japan, drawing on his vast experience in terms of involvement with the country’s arts and architecture.  The evening was split into two parts, with a presentation by Alex and Kathy in the first part and a Q and A session in the second. Drinks and snacks were provided in one of the machiya’s several rooms and a book signing in another.  The house, near Kitano Tenmangu, had formerly been occupied by a geisha from the Kamishichiken district who died at the age of 102, as a consequence of which it escaped modernisation (and demolition), retaining its original character with painted fusuma and tea room.  The setting could hardly have been more perfect for a speaker known for his restoration of old houses (as well as once running a business renting out restored machiya in Kyoto, Alex set up the Chiiori project in Shikoku).

Another Kyoto

There are of course already several guidebooks to Kyoto, but Another Kyoto is remarkable for taking a completely different approach.  This is evident straightaway in the Contents. Rather than the standard listing of famous sights or geographical areas, the book covers such aspects as Gates, Walls, Floors, Tatami, Plaques, Fusuma, and Screens.  The chapter on Shin-gyo-so is particularly illuminating about the different styles of formality, applied to paintings, ceramics and gardens.  Only the final chapter on (Senbon) Enma-do has a conventional subject matter, and as Alex points out the temple is hardly mainstream.

By focussing on the material aspects of the arts and artefacts, Alex draws attention to features that are not usually considered or even referred to.  In this respect the book is truly original – an extraordinary accomplishment for a city that has been so much written about.  More than this, the book does what any work of art aspires to; it makes the reader see the world around them with fresh eyes.  With Alex’s comments in mind, one no longer simply views a fusuma picture as simply a painting, but a precious piece of art on a fragile canvas that is destroyed by overexposure to daylight.  This is all couched in a conversational style which arose out of talks with Kathy Sokol while visiting different places in Kyoto.  Again, it serves to give the book a markedly fresh feel.

Another notable aspect of the book is the contextualisation of Kyoto arts within a wider East Asian setting.  This stems partly from a deep personal involvement with Japanese culture (in addition to being a collector, Alex  practises calligraphy and ran the Oomoto Summer School of traditional arts).  It gives his judgements a measure of authority, for they are born out of close personal involvement.  This is reinforced by his background knowledge of East and South-east Asia: he studied Chinese Studies at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, and he lives half the year in Bangkok where he has taken root to the extent that he considers it as much ‘home’ as his residence in Kameoka (he is also working on a program there for traditional arts).  As a result we do not see the arts and architecture of Kyoto as isolated examples, but as part of larger continental developments.

A third, and no less striking aspect of the book is the deliberate ‘provocation’ in challenging conventional views.  Zen for example is described as noisy, loud and full of words – a far cry from its image as mysterious and silent.  Gardens too, the pride of Kyoto, are downgraded as inferior versions of the genuinely artistic paintings that inspired them.  In his talk, Alex smilingly admitted to a certain relish in provoking controversy with his remarks, and in his book he comments at one point, ‘We’ve got off onto a vein of gushing admiration, the usual tone of the stuff that people write about Kyoto. It’s really not my style.’  Yet even where one may disagree with his provocations, they always make one think and they often reveal an unexpected truth.  For all the books on Kyoto gardens, for instance, there is not a single book about Kyoto art.

In the Question and Answer session, Alex was asked about his other books, and spoke of the award-winning Lost Japan as a work of love that would appeal to newcomers to Japan, while Dogs and Demons dealt with realities that had more relevance for longer-term residents.  Another Kyoto, he said, was probably for those who had already gained an overview of the city’s cultural history and wanted to go beneath the surface.  In response to another question, he talked of his memory of David Kidd, author of All the Emperor’s Horses and a legendary figure among Kyoto expatriates.  Despite his longterm residence in the city, he apparently loathed Japanese art but treasured the country because it had so well preserved Chinese culture.

Asked about his feelings regarding present trends, Alex expressed (very) cautious optimism.  When he started his machiya restoration project, there were only 12 in the city.  Now there are 200.  Grounds for optimism perhaps, until he pointed out that even today for every machiya being saved there are nine that are being destroyed.  It is symptomatic of a sense of ‘Lost Japan’, and what came over from the event, above all, was the desire of Kathy and Alex to pass on his deep appreciation of the Japanese tradition.  The book is ‘a kind of transmission,’ as Kathy noted.  The book was twelve years in the making, and the labour of love is apparent in its attention to detail and wealth of material; astonishingly there are another nine chapters which could not be included because of size limitations.  It conjures up the prospect that those of us who have read and enjoyed the book will have ‘Another Another Kyoto’ to look forward to!!


A video clip of the event can be seen on youtube thanks to Gary Tegler.  Click here or search for ‘Another Kyoto book launch’.

Writers in focus

Basho’s Letters to Uko (Robbins)

Letters to  Uko

(A chapter from Take Back the Sun – Basho Tells Her Story  Translations and Commentary by Jeff Robbins Assisted by Sakata Shoko)

[Bold face is used for Basho’s own words]

Of the women in Basho’s circle the most fascinating is Uko who lived in Kyoto with her husband Boncho.  We have so much material about her to explore, and residents of Kyoto may appreciate that Uko walked on the same streets they navigate today. Basho wrote about her in his Saga Diary and he wrote the three letters to Uko full of personal details in this article. Also we have many of her haiku, seven of them given here. Here is my favorite of her haiku:


the sparkle of stars

night shower

Uko’s ordinary name was Tome. When she became a nun in 1691 she took the Buddhist name Uko, and this is the name she is known by. In the years from 1690 to 1693 when Basho and Uko corresponded, she was in her twenties or thirties, married to Boncho, a doctor in his forties.

A glimpse of Uko and Boncho at home in Kyoto can be seen in the following anecdote: one freezing, snowy night Boncho was about to leave for a poetry gathering, taking along a 12 year old servant boy. Uko spoke out:

Were this my child

no way would you take him!

snow in the night

A 17th century feminist haiku. Uko is threatening to show her husband her strength. (I think of Nancy with her fist in Fagin’s face, saying “No! You will not take Oliver!”)   It is said that “Boncho, awed and ashamed, went on alone.”

Historian Louis Perez translates these instructions from the contemporary moralist tract, Greater Learning For Women: “The great life-long duty of the woman is obedience… a woman should look on her husband as if he were Heaven itself and never weary of thinking how she may yield to her husband and thus escape celestial castigation.”

To this nonsense, Uko says “Not me!”

Our first Letter to Uko was written in late October, 1690:

Recently Old Boncho and Kyorai came to visit.  Although it must have been a bother to them, for so long we lingered, unable to part,
so you shall realize how unlimited was our joy.

 Once a man reaches forty, ro, “old,” is added to his name. I suspect   “Old Boncho” would not be so happy to see himself called this; but since this is a private letter to Uko, he will not know. Basho says that keeping company with him is a duty Boncho and Kyorai have taken on, so a bother to them. Of course he doesn’t really think this; he just says so for appearance (tatemae). How the Japanese love to prolong farewells. It is interesting how often the word ‘joy’ (yorokobi) appears in Basho’s writing.

This winter allow me to hide myself deep in the mountains, but when Spring comes again and again I shall be in your eyes.

To ‘hide myself in the mountains’ means to stay in his hometown of Iga –   not really in the mountains but in isolation, far from the well-traveled road to Kyoto where Uko lives. “Be in your eyes” is a Japanese idiom, but works in English.

I can hardly forget your long-standing benevolence, nor can I say enough about it.  Thanks to the clothing you made for me, I shall not be cold, so you need not worry about me. Let us wait, without misfortune, for Spring.

Yasui Masahiro says, Basho’s letters to women contain mostly short words in which we see a gentleness and humanity (yasashisa to ningenmi) not found in his letters to men. We feel he does not ‘lift his head’ – i.e. be arrogant and over- bearing – to a woman. He makes an impression with simple direct expressions. Take up any Basho letter to a woman and be touched by his unique charm.

Basho spent 18 days this summer in Kyoto and stayed at Uko and Boncho’s house: The following tanka appears in Basho’s letter:

                                          Each evening

                                          kettle surely boiling,

                                           how I miss

                                           those three pillows in

                                             the room where we slept

                                                       This is to you      


                                         [Yoi yoi wa kama tagiru-ran ne-dokoro no

                                            mitsu no makura mo koishi karikeri]

Basho recalls the tea ceremony Uko performed for her guest.   Basho scholar Kon Eizo elaborates Basho’s meaning in the first two lines: “as I think of the kettle boiling in your tea cottage,   I imagine your peaceful, settled lifestyle” — a lifestyle so serene that each evening she has the time and heart to make tea in the formal meditative Way of Tea.

In a Japanese home of refinement, the houseguest never puts out his or her own futon and pillow; the wife of the house always performs that role while the guest is in the bath. Because Japanese line things up in parallel as an expression of respect, and because Basho was her teacher and her houseguest, we can assume that Uko diligently lined the futons and pillows up in three even vertical columns — like the three strokes of the Chinese character for ‘river,’ , which suggest a baby nestled between mommy and daddy, receiving warmth and security from both sides. In the tanka the heat of “kettle boiling” flows into the warmth in Basho’s memory of “those three pillows.”

The tanka focuses on Uko, praising her hospitality, her tea ceremony, the sleeping arrangements she made for her guest. Basho wrote many haiku praising the splendor of Kyoto’s temples and shrines, as well as yearning for Kyoto long ago, however here he praises the living humanity in Kyoto, the graceful serenity of his hostess, the intimacy of their friendship.

Two years before the writing of this letter, at the end of 1688, Uko wrote this haiku:

With no child,

of what shall I think?

the year ends

She sketches the unsettled feeling of a woman whose hormones seek pregnancy; in 1689 they won. (Old Boncho scored!)   So by the time of this letter, autumn of 1690, her daughter must be near her first birthday (in the Western sense. The Japanese did not have birthdays — everybody just became one year older on New Year’s Day. Simple.)

p.s.  May you raise Tei-chan without misfortune. Yoshi from far away also says this to you.                                                                        

Basho politely addresses the infant as Tei dono — “Little Miss Tei”. However he got the kid’s name wrong. Uko’s daughter is Sai. ‘Yoshi’ is short for Oyoshi, Basho’s little sister, now about 40. When Basho was in Iga at his house, Oyoshi asked him to take her best wishes to Uko and the baby; here Basho kindly delivers them. There are three persons in this postscript, all female. Basho pays attention to the energy passing from one female to another. Basho writes ‘like a woman’, with consciousness of women, children, and personal relationships.

In the spring of 1691, Uko took the tonsure of a Buddhist nun – which in Japan means cutting the hair to shoulder-length — although she continued living with her husband and two year old child in a wealthy section of Kyoto. Bessho Makiko notes that many woman haiku poets became nuns – after the husband passed on. Uko is the only nun-wife with an infant daughter. (Say what?) Shoko, from reading Basho’s letters to Uko, gets the impression that Uko becoming a nun had little or nothing to do with Buddhism.   Being a nun gave a woman freedom to travel and interact with many people, but also Shoko suspects that Uko wanted to ensure that she would not get pulled into a relationship with another man if Boncho disappeared from her life—which does in fact happen in 1693. Boncho was quite enough.

I have a different idea. Uko became a nun because she did not want any more children. Sai-chan was quite enough. Officially sanctioned celibacy was the only way she could keep Boncho off of her.   He was in his forties and concerned about appearing “old” and she still young and vibrant. So Uko was not “really” a nun, it was just a disguise, a tatemae for appearance, as a means of contraception.

People want their cultivated chrysanthemums to be perfectly healthy for the Chrysanthemum Festival on the 9th Day of the 9th Moon (in 1691, October 29), when everyone goes around town admiring the many different colors and arrangement of this late autumn flower. It is a custom to wrap cotton around them in the days before the festival so they won’t catch cold.

Uko sent Basho a present, a cushion she designed and sewed to fit around his hips while he sits to keep them warm this coming winter. Basho’s replied on October 3, 1691.

With your letter came the cushion you made for my hips and sent to me from the intention of your heart, not from a shallow place within you, and so I am grateful. Now as we wrap chrysanthemums in cotton:

In the first frost

flowers start to feel cold,

my hip cushion

When finally I can go up to Kyoto I will thank you more.

We recall the tanka Basho wrote to Uko the preceeding year:           

Each evening
kettle surely boiling,
how I miss
those three pillows in
the room where we slept

Both the tanka and IN THE FIRST FROST contain warmth, intimacy, body consciousness, gratitude, and a feminine presence and outlook.

I would like to think Sai-chan is becoming obedient.

In the p.s. to the 1690 letter, Basho called Uko’s daughter “Tei.” In her letter with the hip cushion Uko must have used the correct name, so in this letter Basho gets it right. If Sai was one then, in the year past she has entered the ‘terrible twos,’ that period when every waking moment is devoted to proving independence from mama. Japanese women today say the same about 2 or 3 year olds (otonashiku natta deshō).

p.s.     For the letter you sent to Chigetsu you have made me grateful. Gentle your heart’s intention, returning again and again.

         Chigetsu also knows that feeling.

Chigetsu, another woman follower of Basho, must have told Basho she got a letter from Uko. He praises the gentleness of woman, and also their solidarity. He seems to be building bridges between these two women followers.

Uko sent Basho a letter with two of her haiku; here is one:

Field in spring—

from which of the grasses

came this rash?

 Uko went walking through a field in spring, and got a skin rash. Her verse carries the mind from the vast field of miscellaneous grasses and shrubs to Uko‘s own body. As life emerges in the fields so do plant substances that cause allergic reactions in this season. The leaves of shrubs have prickles on them, and if you touch them, skin rash.

Uko’s other verse appears in Monkey’s Raincoat with this headnote:

I am weak and often sick and to trim my hair was too difficult, so this spring I changed the style.

Hairpins and comb

long ago – fallen petal

of the camellia

Uko begins with the beauty of her hair enhanced by ornamental pins and combs. But much of that hair is gone; the long black hair lies like a puddle on the ground around her – the way many, many red petals of a camellia blossom lie together in a damp clump around the tree. Cherry petals are light and just float away. Camellia petals are solid and chunky — the feeling of all that black hair on the floor.

Following are sections from Basho’s final Letter to Uko, dated February 23, 1693

            As for the two haiku you sent me, they do make the feeling enter.  I am glad to see your talent has not declined.

            Of the two, the verse FIELD IN SPRING made me see an image of the awful rash on your thin hands and legs.

Uko gives no indication of where on her body she got the rash, but Basho sees it specifically “on your thin hands and legs” — the parts of the body that come into contact with shrubs and wild growth as we walk through the field. Both in the haiku and in Basho‘s comment on it, we see much body consciousness. If Basho is so austere and monk-like, how come he ‘sees’ a woman‘s legs in imagination?

From your verse in Monkey‘s Raincoat people feel attracted. They ask me, ‘What sort of beauty is she? Is she ladylike?’

The readers of Monkey‘s Raincoat unfamiliar with Uko cannot tell from the headnote or the verse that she is a nun, and they think “A woman who writes a verse like this, how beautiful and ladylike she must be!” Shoko and I considered various alternatives before she suggested ‘ladylike’ for teijo. I am not exactly sure what “ladylike” means, but somehow it fits. If they knew she was a nun they would not ask this. Nuns have given up all concern for beauty and ladylikeness.

Some Japanese women nuns chose to live an austere Buddhist life, but Uko seems to be enjoying her ordinary life while being a nun. Basho is telling Uko that the readers of her verse feel her femininity, when what they should be feeling is her Buddhism.

 I reply, “She is not beautiful and she is not ladylike.  She became a nun only by the compassion in her heart.”  So discipline your heart to more and more compassion.

Basho‘s response is not to offend her. Remember she is pretending to be a nun without actually renouncing her sensuality. If Basho said Uko is beautiful, that would imply that her nun‘s disguise is not working; we can see through it. Uko, if we are going to pretend that you are a nun, we have to stop seeing you as a beautiful lady –although that is what you are, even without your hair. We have to maintain the tatemae. Although you are pretending to be a nun, in reality, you shall become ever more compassionate.

After he and Kyorai completed editing Monkey‘s Raincoat, Boncho got into a dispute with Basho and left the school – though as we see in this letter Basho continues to support Uko. Sometime around 1693 Boncho was convicted of a crime and imprisoned – whether he is in jail at the time of this letter is unclear.

If Boncho can manage would be good, one step in your favor. Impermanence so swift. And again.

Basho either means “I hope Boncho can stay out of jail” or “I hope he gets out soon.” Meanwhile Uko is on her own with a small child. Mujo junsoku, ‘Impermanence so swift’ is one of the grand central thoughts of the Japanese mind—that everything will pass away so soon. Basho writes it and follows with a repeat mark. Three years ago Uko was a doctor’s wife with a fine house and a tea cottage in a wealthy neighborhood of Kyoto; from now with Boncho in jail Basho realizes that Uko will become very poor. Even when he gets out, no one will go to a doctor who is a convicted criminal.

Sometimes the best part of a Basho letter is the p.s.

With those jerks in Nagoya, all lines appear to be down.  Much unfinished business.

Shoko says yatsubara domo, is a swear word, maybe the equivalent of   ‘those assholes‘– I think “jerks” is strong enough. Shirane describes how the Nagoya group were in 1684, “the primary force in first establishing the Basho style” but from 1691, “they turned their backs on Basho”, so by now “almost all the Owari/Nagoya group had become estranged from Basho.” Basho says communication with them is futsu, as when telephone lines are down after as storm or earthquake.

However, the hip cushion you sent me — this winter, I wrapped it around my head and it kept out the cold.

Part 2 of the p.s. is best of all. In the second letter to Uko,   Basho thanked her for the cushion she made and sent him to keep his hips warm while sitting – well, this winter; he liked wrapping it around his head. This is the real Basho, not some austere saint or Buddhist hermit, but as Shoko calls him, ‘Dear Uncle Basho,’ a bit strange but still a pretty good guy.

Uko wrote this haiku:

Within the toll

of the evening bell –

ho toto gi su

The bright five-note call of the little cuckoo, known as “time bird,” spreads through the vast and deep reverberation of the temple bell.   Uko hears one sound vibrate inside another sound, such is her sensitivity to the physical world.

Yoel Hoffman’s Japanese Death Poems includes this verse by a woman named Uko:

Take me now

where the clouds pass

hototo gi su

 The bird is said to call from the land of the dead, and to carry the dead spirit there.

The Uko who wrote this verse, however, is not the Uko of this article. From her birth date given in Hoffman’s book, we see she was an infant when Basho wrote these letters. Also it is recorded that she lived in Kyoto. It seems like that the author of this death-poem was Uko’s daughter Sai who signed it with her mother’s name.

Note from Jeff Robbins: I request your assistance in getting out the word on this ‘other Basho’ – the warm affectionate Basho who wrote hundreds of poems about women and kids, and hundreds more about friendship and love —   hundreds of Basho works few people know, yet the most pro-female, child-centered, and life-affirming works in all literature?  Your feedback will be most appreciated.  Basho4now@gmail.com


Writers in focus

Book announcement (Allen Weiss)

Allen Weiss book coverAllen S. Weiss is known to many in Kyoto through his books on aesthetics, and in recent years he has given well-received talks on the subject (see here).  His latest book has now appeared, and he has generously agreed for us to reprint the Preface below as well as providing samples of the always exceptional photographs that accompany his writing.  Unfortunately Allen won’t be making his annual visit to Kyoto this winter because of an operation on his eye, but he tells us that he has already made plans for the autumn of 2017 so we very much look forward to organising an event with him at that time (some will recall the wonderful talk in Robert Yellin’s gallery that he gave).


Koie Ryōji, “Night Snow” guinomi, detail

Koie Ryōji, “Night Snow” guinomi, detail

The Grain of the Clay: Reflections on Ceramics and the Art of Collecting [Reaktion Books, 2016] is simultaneously an examination of collecting as a form of autobiography, indeed occasionally as a form of art and an attempt to sharpen our perception, increase our appreciation, and augment our imagination of ceramics. I hope to accomplish this by stressing the sundry means of establishing deeper relations with ceramics in our everyday lives, notably linking the beauty of pottery to the pleasures of cuisine; by investigating the vast stylistic range of ceramics, so as to celebrate their aesthetic value and confirm their unique place in the history of our arts; and by attuning ourselves to the profound poetry of ceramics, especially in relation to the natural world. As Western aesthetic hierarchies are crumbling, works previously sequestered as “crafts” – notably ceramics and cuisine – are finding their rightful place in museums. This newfound engagement with finely wrought natural materials will hopefully foster an increased ecological sensitivity in these times of crisis. In other cultures, relations between the arts have evolved differently. For example, the tea ceremony at the core of traditional Japanese culture highly valorizes cuisine, and places ceramics alongside calligraphy and painting as the highest art forms. This suggests a valuable paradigm to guide our evolving aesthetics, and to elucidate the symbolic and poetic resonances between ceramics, cuisine, and landscape. Unlike the museum curator, the collector lives with the work of art, and thus learns to know its appearance in every lighting condition day and night, its every nuance of form and color, its varied relations to changing decor. This is why autobiographical forms are most appropriate to explore the passion for collecting. More complex, however, is whether an autobiography can be recounted through a collection. Such can be but a tale of idiosyncrasy, and sometimes even folly.

– Allen S. Weiss


Kamo by Allen Weiss

Kamo by Allen Weiss

Writers in focus

Kyoto Faces (Tawarayama)

The WiK Competition Organiser, Karen Lee Tawarayama, has set up a blog called Kyoto Faces with the ambitious aim of giving a picture of the ordinary lives of Kyoto residents.  For a city famed for its tourist sights and imperial history, it’s a valuable project for while the opinions of foreign observers are often bandied about in the English-language media, there is little feedback from the citizens who actually live and work in the city.  Over time Karen may build up a valuable resource that acts as a profile of the city at large.  As an example of these trailblazing interviews, here is an example of a young mother with an interest in architecture.  Her research on trash cans and her views on Kyoto Station may come as a surprise…


Tell me about a significant memory from your past.

When I was a university student, I really enjoyed going around to visit Kyoto’s temples. I really loved Kiyomizu Temple. And because I was studying architecture, through a connection with my professor, I had the opportunity to guide some visiting high school students there. At that time, a temple preservation and restoration expert taught us about the high level techniques of the carpenters who built the Japanese temples (which remain until this day), and I was deeply moved. I explained this to the high school students, and they were also extremely impressed by this information. So that experience of temples in Kyoto remains in my memory. To explain the architectural technique, it’s a little detailed, but they constructed the buildings without a single nail. The carpenter arranged the beams like a puzzle. And the fact that someone so long ago was able to use a technique that remains extremely complicated until this day is really amazing to me. This technique would be extremely expensive so can’t be used to build a regular house. Most homes are built using very easy and inexpensive techniques, so a temple is the only place where we are able to view this kind of architecture these days.

I studied architecture in university because I had a dream to be an interior designer. I was particularly interested in modern design, like the design of chairs. And it’s kind of a different topic, but for a report in school, we had to look into design techniques to not break the Kyoto scenery, so I did a report on trash cans around Kyoto. For example, I looked into their color, their shape and how they are made to blend in, for example trash cans at temples and other places around town. Most trash cans around Kyoto aren’t brightly colored, but are brown so they blend in with the environment. And trash cans at temples are rarely painted in bright colors, but might have a woven pattern, for example. This is a rather old story of mine though… My professor had mentioned that Kyoto is currently making an effort to do away with public trash cans. When Japanese people have trash, they usually carry it home with them.

What is your dream for the future?”

At this time, I have a one-year-old child, so it’s not possible to go on a long trip. But my husband and I both love to travel, and so do my parents, so it is my dream to go on a trip with my entire family when my child gets a little older. I especially want to go abroad. My husband and I went to the Czech Republic for our honeymoon, and it was so pretty, so we would like to visit once more with our child. As far as for my own personal future, there are so many foreign visitors in Kyoto these days. Of course there are many Japanese students who come on school trips as well, but since I was born in this beautiful city which draws so many tourists, I would love to do some tourism-related work. Like actually guiding them or having some contact with them, like working at the station or at a hotel. That type of work sounds good to me. Even if we can’t communicate perfectly because of a language gap, I think it’s important to figure  out what those travelers want from their trip. It shouldn’t be only what Japanese people want to show them. People’s interests are different depending on their nationality, and what moves each individual person is different, so I think it would be great to provide guidance based on each person’s specific needs.

What is your “Kyoto #1”?

I’ve always loved Kyoto Station. I’m from Kameoka, which is outside of the city, but when I was an elementary student, the new Kyoto Station had just been built. I loved the design. It’s was a huge, very modern building filled with people which also has Japanese sweets shops and other Japanese products. I liked it so much, I chose to attend a high school in Kyoto city just so I could always pass through the station every day. So I hope that tourists in the city will make Kyoto Station one of their stops. Most of all, I want them to take a look at the architecture. There are many unique concepts, like the stairs and other places, but it’s like a maze, so if you take time to explore, you’re sure to find your favorite spot. If you go all the way to the top, you can have a fantastic view of the city. Of course, the view from Kyoto Tower is good too, but this way you can have a view of the city with Kyoto Tower in it. So, that is my recommendation.

Featured writing

Dancing over Kyoto


One of the senior members of Writers in Kyoto announced last year that they would no longer be buying or reading self-published books on the grounds that the lack of quality control meant that it wasn’t worth the investment in terms of time.  There were too many typos, too much self-indulgence, and too much quantity over quality. It may be an extreme view, but there’s obviously more than a grain of truth in the assertion.

It was with some concern then that I embarked on Dancing over Kyoto, a self-published Kindle book by Richard Russell.  Yes, there are typos.  Yes, there are places where the book might have done with  good editing.  But overall, the quality of writing makes this a self-publication well worth the reading.  Judging by the number of acknowledgements, I take this to be the result of care taken with rewriting in response to feedback.

Memoirs by expatriate males are a staple of Japan literature, featuring the mutual attraction of a Western narrator and Oriental female.  Dancing with Kyoto is unusual in that the romances are with American women (the sole attraction for a Japanese female is unconsummated). Yet the two big love affairs are puzzling in that the extreme ardour of the narrator is but a prelude in each case to a painful break-up.  Somehow one can’t help wanting to hear the other side of the story, testament to the extent to which the writing draws one into the personal narrative.

The male-female relationships are not the only unusual feature, for rather than viewing Japan as an English teacher or a Zen practitioner, the narrator writes from the viewpoint of a trained lawyer with an interest in importing Japanese art items.  This perspective adds an extra dimension to the observations, and the way in which as an amateur the narrator goes about entering the world of antique wheeler-dealing, even to the extent of running his own gallery, is fascinating.

The biographical story is set against the author’s love of Kyoto and description of his sojourns in the city.  Towards the end the narrative turns abroad to experiences in China, where he is part of a trade delegation to a remote part of the country, and India where he encounters the customs of the Parsis.  The cultural insights are valuable and provide a comparison with Japan, but I found myself hoping for a return to Kyoto because of the enlivening touch of familiarity.  Kurodani Temple for example is lovingly evoked, and the descriptions of The Three Sisters annex made me regret never having visited, though I passed by often enough.

In the end, what raises this self-publication above mere solipsism is the quality of the writing.  Sex and diarrhoea are no easy subjects to write about (there are several Bad Sex awards for fiction though no prize for diarrhoea that I’m aware of), yet Russell manages to write his way around both with tact and humour, impressive by any standards.  I was dreading the results of his ‘Indian belly’ but the author managed to turn it into something of a linguistic pleasure, and during a particularly sensual Chinese massage he writes of keeping ‘my sails furled and my rigging stowed’ while she works her way around his ‘point of no return’.

Here then is one of the exceptions to the rule – a self-published book that is actually worth the time of reading.  Great title, too!


Dancing over Kyoto can be found on amazon, where it’s amassed an impressive 29 customer reviews, suggesting that either the author has a lot of friends or that Kyoto is indeed a ‘brand name’ when it comes to book sales.  As can be seen, the cover too is suggestive of a thoughtful approach – ‘Always judge a book by its cover,’ said Oscar Wilde, and in terms of self-publishing he had a good point.  If no care is taken with the cover, the implication is that little care is taken with the content.

Featured writing

Kyoto Unhurried

All it took was three days in Kyoto.

A short holiday in the city was enough to convince writer Janice Tay to give up a settled life in Singapore and move to the heart of old Japan. A decade later, she is still here. From 2007 to 2013, she contributed a fortnightly column on Japanese culture and history to The Straits Times, Singapore’s main English-language daily and one of the oldest newspapers in Asia.  Kyoto Unhurried, a collection of essays based on that column, features lesser-known places, people and events in an atmospheric introduction to one of the world’s most romantic cities.


“I’ve been waiting for years, I feel, for a book that embodies all the sensitivity and gracefulness – and playfulness – I associate with my adopted home, Kyoto. This is a work that not only opens the door to one of the world’s great cities, but shows you the very spirit that makes Kyoto so special.”
– Pico Iyer

Below is an excerpt from Kyoto Unhurried:

I’ve seen them from below, from cars and from a picnic blanket so, this year, I decide to find out how sakura look from water.

River boats ply the Hozugawa from Kameoka city to Arashiyama, an area of temples and bamboo on the western edges of Kyoto. In spring, cherry blossoms dot the mountains lining the route – but only for a few days because sakura moves fast.
The boat, on the other hand, does not. Propelled by pole and oar, it inches away from the pier; even walking would be faster. The boat ride takes about one and a half hours – the next 100 minutes look like they’re going to be long.

We pass a carriage horse plodding along the bank. The passengers wave down at us; we wave back. The carriage, another form of river entertainment, moves as leisurely as we do. We’ve slipped into an older age, a slower one, a time set to the metronome of a creaking oar.

Even the whitewater sections feel laidback. But the experience is considerably enlivened by the Japanese in the boat; they scream through the not very rapid rapids as if we’re going over the Niagara Falls in a barrel.

The river doesn’t have a long history of transporting excitable tourists. The sightseeing tours began only in the late 19th century but for hundreds of years, timber – lashed together into rafts – as well as grain and charcoal were floated down the Hozugawa to Kyoto. The practice came to an end only about 70 years ago when railways and roads took over.

These days, the river trade is tourism. The boatmen are busiest in spring and autumn, when sakura blooms and the maple leaves are bright. But on some days in winter, snow dusts the mountains and in summer, there are azaleas.

Not long after the ride begins, the woman beside me points to a thin rope stretched above the river. ‘What’s that?’ she asks one of the three boatmen.

‘Tin can telephone line,’ he says with a straight face.

It’s the rope for the koinobori. In early summer, carp-shaped streamers are suspended from the line. They flutter alive when the wind flows down the ravine, an invisible river above the water.

The carp are seen only in summer but the boatmen keep up their comic patter all year round. They steer not just the boat but also the conversation. Knowing when to push the boat away from a boulder seems as important as timing a joke.
The boatman rowing in front points out the difficulty of navigating a shallow river. ‘If the bottom of the boat hits a rock, water may start gushing in. At times like this – ’  He pauses.  ‘Just keep quiet and put your foot over the hole.’

He tells us not to worry if we fall into the river and swallow a couple of mouthfuls. ‘It’s okay to drink the water; it’s good for constipation.’

An elderly passenger asks if he knows any boatman songs. He makes a face. ‘Row and sing? I’d die.’

In the busy periods of spring and autumn, he says, each boatman has to do three to four trips daily. ‘Towards the end of the day, I’m so tired I can’t talk. So if you come in sakura or maple leaf season, come in the morning.’

The river was even more demanding in the past. Boats, unable to float upstream, had to be dragged back to the starting point after the cargo was unloaded. The crews hiked along narrow trails by the river, pulling the ropes tied to the boats. Over hundreds of years, the ropes cut grooves into the riverside rocks that can still be seen today.

These days, the boats are stacked onto a lorry and driven back to Kameoka. The boatmen return by train.

But we’ve not reached the end yet. We’re still in the middle of the river in our little wooden boat and the man working the oar still finds the time to point out turtles, diving cormorants and monkeys along the shore. I spot a brown dipper, a bird that walks underwater to search for food on the stream bed. I count the seconds until it bobs back up to the surface.

The boatman points out the sakura as well but he doesn’t need to. You can’t miss it, the white puffs in the green and brown – less like trees in flower than clouds that drifted too close to the mountains and snagged there.

‘The Torokko train’s coming,’ says the boatman. An old-fashioned locomotive pulls into view. Another popular tourist attraction in the area, the train runs alongside the river for part of its route. Now that it’s sakura season, the carriages are packed. The train passengers wave at us. We’re too far away to see their faces but we wave back.

And we arrive too soon at Arashiyama. Rental boats fill the river here but our boatmen navigate through the amateur rowers as if they’re just a few more rocks along the way.

One of the boatmen announces the end of the ride; a passenger groans.

The boat hasn’t just delivered us to Arashiyama. It took us to a slower age – limited to the here and therefore focused on the now – when people had the time to wave to strangers and watch mountains stretching out, wider than any widescreen television. With all that to do, time in a slow boat passes quickly, faster even than the clouds of cherry blossoms that come in spring and leave in days.


Kyoto Unhurried can be ordered through amazon.com here.

Apart from taking the 100-minute Hozugawa cruise, visitors can also explore the area just upstream of Togetsu-kyo, an iconic bridge in the Arashiyama area, by hiring a boat.

Apart from taking the 100-minute Hozugawa cruise, visitors can also explore the area just upstream of Togetsu-kyo, an iconic bridge in the Arashiyama area, by hiring a boat. (photo Janice Tay)


Writers in focus

Two Kyoto poems (Mark Richardson)

The poems of Mark Richardson have featured on this website before (here, or here for instance).  This time Mark has agreed to allow us to publish two of his poems from the first WiK Anthology, Echoes.
As well as writing poetry, Mark is also a scholar specialising in Robert Frost. He has written a book about the poet called The Ordeal of Robert Frost (Illinois, 1997), worked on different editions of his writings, and edited ongoing volumes of The Letters of Robert Frost (pub. by Harvard).  Here then, for your delectation, are two Kyoto poems with a distinctly contemporary feel.


Kyoto is an Italian cafe in a Burberry coat.

Kyoto’s a city that beeps, an Egyptian-cotton

T-shirt. It’s a warren of rabbits pounding rice

on the moon, gazing up at itself each autumn.

Kyoto’s an obsessive-compulsive disorder

with a smartphone. Ten thousand children sit

on its station floors. Kyoto’s a safety mechanism,

a forty-dollar melon, a better place to get divorced in

than Tampa Bay. Kyoto’s a pub on a planet,

a light-up, a turn-down. Kyoto’s a salad bowl

fashioned in 794, dressed in vinegar and silk.

It’s a gold medal sleeper, a white-gloved circuit rider––

and an upholstered cop with his hanko sine qua non.


The Day The World Became Explicable

Well, on my first day at the shrine, of course.

Such a shame. Even the curtains loitered with intent.

There are ten thousand ways to endure the world.

I developed legs and walked out to the cape;

the sea was a pea-green, “unrhymed sonnet”––

which made about as much sense to me

as road rage. The trains depart at daybreak.

No one asks what the destination is.

We had it all––music, funny cuisine, hats,

boys and girls studying philology at night school,

and an enclave of Spanish cats in Palmyra.

After so long, so long traveling alone together

on God’s green earth, only Satan has his champion.

Anyhow, it’s a good day for laundry in Kyoto.

Writers in focus

Island of Serow (Amy Chavez)

By Amy Chavez


Japan is known for its cat islands where the resident strays can outnumber the humans living there. There is also a rabbit island populated by cute cavorting rabbits. I’ve even been to an uninhabited island in the Seto Inland Sea where wild deer and pheasants run amok. But nothing could have prepared me for what I found on Goat Island.

I had heard about Goat Island from some locals on Kitagishima, an island in the Seto Inland Sea. “Sometimes I can see the goats walking across that sandbar at low tide,” said a venerable ojiisan while pointing his crooked finger to an outcropping of rocks a few kilometers away. He was sitting on an equally ancient tree stump that had been uprooted and brought on shore by the last typhoon.

We were on the opposite side of Kitagi Island’s Chinohama, or “Blood Beach,” where in the 1185 Gempei War, when the Heike clan lost the great sea battle of Dan’no Ura against the Genpei, the dead Heike warriors washed up on these shores. The souls of the fallen Heike are said to still haunt some of these islands in the Inland Sea.

“You’ve never been there?” I enquired. “No interest,” he said and dropped the subject.

I felt a challenge presented before me. I guessed the sandbar to be about four kilometers away, and I find it very difficult to turn down anything that involves goats.

I had raised a couple of goats when I was a child in the U.S. and I’ve found myself falling for them more and more the further away from childhood I get. Oh, those long floppy ears and slender legs! And who doesn’t marvel at the way they suppliantly kneel when grazing?

A few days later, I was watching cute goat videos on the Internet at home and one of those Amazon ads came up on the side menu selling inflatable kayaks for just 20,000 yen. Ooooh, just what I needed to get to Goat Island!

The price was a promotion, only good for the next 24 hours, after which they’d return to the original price of over 30,000 yen. According to the Amazon website, there were only two kayaks left in stock and I was being informed, in bold red letters, that three other people were currently browsing the same product.

Click–the kayak was mine! I also ordered some goat cheese to celebrate my impending journey since the order confirmation promised me free shipping on any additional goods.

While I waited for my provisions to arrive, I got deeper and deeper into goat. I sent an endorsement to Gary the Goat, who is running for prime minister of Australia (via his Facebook page) and I read up on Japan Railway’s goat employment, and how they were managing to use the ruminants to tame the weeds along the train tracks.

The very next morning, while working through a Wikipedia article about ungulates, I heard the delivery man in my genkan: Ohayogozaimasu! My Amazon order had arrived!

As excited as I was about my kayaking trip, I felt a lingering sense of trepidation brought on by some dark incidents in my past. You see, although I love animals, I had been physically assaulted by them before. The first time was as a ten-year-old when a farm dog bit my leg while I was riding my bicycle.

I am blond-haired and blue-eyed, but I had never thought of myself as being particularly attractive. Not until the second abominable episode, that is.

This one involved a Saint Bernard. I was walking across a snowy field when this ponderous creature came bounding towards me out of nowhere. I really do like dogs, so I was not afraid and besides, Saint Bernards are not vicious animals. The slobbering mastodon knocked me down on to the ground and started licking my face. I laughed as I found this extremely funny. But when I tried to regain my footing, I realized I was pinned down and could not move–and the dog was humping me. Luckily, the owner was not far behind and he just managed to pry the beast off me. Since the owner was obviously horrified, and apologized profusely, I did not press charges.

As an adult, I once befriended a cow in the field next to our house. After a few minutes of innocent scratches behind the horns, I noticed he was actually a young bull–and extremely excited. Thank god there was a fence between us. Ever since that day he would run to greet me at the fence whenever I walked out of the house. Unrequited love, I supposed.

I’m not sure why animals find me so attractive. Do you think it’s my pheromones?

Then, rather foolishly I admit, I posed in front of the balls of the 15-meter Big Merino statue in Australia. It was just a joke, but after I posted the photo to the Internet, it went viral. From then on, my reputation among sheep was cemented. I stay away from sheep now. Or at least make sure there is a good strong fence between us.

These days I am more cautious around animals. I am careful about my demeanor and I watch what I wear. In Japan, you don’t come across large animals very often but I knew a prudent approach to Goat Island was required.

I set up the inflatable kayak, packed provisions for a few days and a tent. I also took a solar charger for my cell phone. I boarded the ferry to Kitagi Island and launched from the same beach where I’d met the old man, as this was also the closest point to Goat Island.

It took me the afternoon to kayak to the rocky outcropping and nigh upon the coast I could see it was densely wooded and almost entirely surrounded by rocks. If it hadn’t been for the sand bar, I wouldn’t have had a place to land the kayak at all.

Pulling the boat up onto the sand, heikegani crabs frantically dispersed under my feet. I was happy to see them as it is rare to see this type of crab these days. They’re said to bear the visages of the fallen Heike warriors.

Next, I heard a whistling snort from the other island residents. I could see them huddled together looking at me from a slight rise in the forest. It appeared to be a small herd, perhaps a family.

And they were adorable: little black ears, straight but smooth horns of the same ear length, and a thick dusky coat with a whitish ruffle around the neck and a black line tapering down the ridge of their backs. But while they acted like goats, there was something odd about that snort.

That’s when I realized they weren’t goats at all, but Japanese serow, or kamoshika. These animals, sometimes called goat-antelopes, were nearly hunted to extinction. Since 1955 they have been protected. While the head is like a goat’s, their body looks more like an antelope. They have big, black snouts. With these large soft noses, they sport the rock star looks of the capybara.

The older serow, quite thankfully, ignored me. One particolored elder did fix his gaze on me for an uncomfortably long time, but I wasn’t about to give him the time of day.

And there were babies. The kids were wild with joy at my arrival and capered in front of me in ebullient play. As it was getting late, I decided to pitch my tent just above the high tide mark on the sandbar and get a good rest after an exhausting afternoon. I also wanted to lay low and not upset the herd too much on the first day.

That night, while the tide lapped up close to my tent, I could hear serow noises outside. I looked out the tent flap and spied some serow in the moonlight–dancing. It could have been a mating ritual for all I knew, but on hind legs, in pairs, they locked heads and horns and parried forward and backward. It was an agile, delicate maneuvering, among whispering grunts. I didn’t dare leave my tent to get a closer look, just in case it was a mating call.

The next morning I sat on the beach and powered up my cell phone but there was no Internet service on Serow Island. That’s when I noticed the particolored bull staring at me again, through the thistle this time, trying to insinuate himself into my thoughts. I snapped his picture but otherwise ignored him.

Meanwhile, the kids were already at my tent door, pawing to get in and play. I proffered a bit of my goat cheese and was amused at their curiosity in finding something so exquisite in the familiar.

That day I observed the serow, carefully documenting their social behaviors in a notebook and taking images with my cell phone. The kids spent their time skylarking while the self-possessed elders led a languid life of chewing their cuds (curiously, always facing the mainland as if there was some answer to their ruminations out there).

They sustained themselves by nibbling the foliage of young trees, scarfing the barks of older trees and ingesting the occasional adventitious morsels such as mikan oranges that washed up on the sandbar among other rubbish of the Inland Sea. They drank from a spring on the leeward side of their tiny island.

In the distance, the Seto Ohashi Bridge loomed, the occasional cargo ship churned past and more frequent ferries trundled back and forth between the islands and the mainland, never veering from their stayed routes.

The second night, I watched the serow dance again, not daring to leave my tent. This time I glimpsed some hitodama, those ghostly fire balls, hovering in the air above the animals. I fell asleep listening to the soft whistling yet plangent blows of mating serow.

The adult ruminants seemed to have adopted me into the herd in a certain capacity–as baby sitter. I was good for their kids and allowed the adults to do more of their indolent mastication exercise. Devoid of cupidity and desiderata, the serow hadn’t a care in the world! It was, perhaps, an ideal life.


Some time passed and although I was comfortable on this peaceful patch of world, calm with no Web or social media connections, I knew it was time to end my sojourn on Serow Island. I had two kids of my own by now, and the old particolored serow didn’t care about me anymore. The kids, both male, were going to get big and smelly soon. I didn’t want to leave the kids, but I knew they’d be scoffed at on the mainland. People would tease them and call them satyrs. Besides, why would I want to lure them away from an already perfect world?

The kids lined up on the rocks whickering at me as I slipped away, my own two standing out from the young herd with their lighter hair and bushier coats. I left this charming land of ruminating reveries with tears in my eyes.

I paddled until I reached Kitagi Island. But I was surprised at what I found upon my return. The island had been abandoned and the houses were overgrown with weeds. There were no people and, more surprisingly, no cats, rabbits or other strays. All remnants imputed to an aeonian civilization were gone.

I fished out my cell phone and turned it on. The case made a loud cracking sound and the white plastic turned yellow in an instant. My hands started to tremble and I realized how terribly wrinkled they had become–I’d turned into an old lady!

I looked out towards Serow Island. The Seto Ohashi Bridge still loomed on the horizon. But there were no cargo ships and no ferries plying back and forth. And Serow Island had vanished.

My phone was useless but my photos were still intact! I frantically fumbled with my crooked fingers until I found a selfie I’d taken with my kids. They were so cute, wearing those silly Heike masks they’d found washed up on the beach one day.

Writers in focus

Novel extract (David Joiner)

David Joiner, whose talk about promoting his first novel was well received last year, has kindly allowed us a sneak look at his current work in progress. This follows his time in Vietnam, since when he has moved to Kanazawa and married.

David writes: “Attached is the beginning of an untitled novel set in Kanazawa, which I’m hoping will be about an expatriate’s attempt to untangle himself from modern life in Japan and instead dedicate himself fully to a more traditional existence, putting him in conflict with his Japanese wife and others whom he’s close to. (“It needs a lot of work still. And it may not end up being my final choice of an opening for the novel – or may not appear at all in the book once it’s finished (if it ever is). But this is what I have now, along with a few other finished and unfinished chapters I’m playing around with.”)


Chapter 1

Falling snow muted the wail of the ambulance and the illumination of its red emergency light. Leaning against the windowsill and looking outside, Emmitt couldn’t make out anyone in the vehicle, not even the driver in the near window. The ambulance’s interior was brightly lit, indicating that paramedics were working on a patient they were transporting. Peering through the heavy snowfall, Emmitt still saw no one inside, however.

The ambulance dissolved in the snow. Along the Sea of Japan, he thought, over the course of the long winter, February was the whitest month.

Through the window, a Japanese man in a heavy winter coat hurried in the direction of the far-off mountains. The man huddled against the cold beneath an umbrella covered in snow, its edges crumbling and falling to the undetectable sidewalk. Under the blurred streetlights, the scene looked like a Hiroshige woodblock print set in modern Kanazawa.

When the man was gone, what remained was a reflection in the window of his wife, Mirai, and his mother-in-law cooking dinner behind him. He watched Mirai until his father-in-law called out to him: “Your new house will be cold on nights like this. I expect you’ll want to come back and stay with us.”

He lay on the sofa facing the TV. He was wrapped in a blanket, unwilling, apparently, to admit that his own house was freezing.

The evening news had just come on. The main story was the betting scandal in sumo. Yesterday it had infuriated him, but today, hearing that the March tournament in Osaka had been cancelled for the first time in 65 years, he seemed reconciled to worse. Hearing this disappointment over a sport he loved softened him slightly.

“It isn’t our house yet,” Emmitt said, unsure if his father-in-law was listening. “But if we get it, we’ll have the renovators make sure it’s insulated enough.”

“Let’s just hope we can afford it,” Mirai said from the kitchen, “Eiheiji should hire them. Those temple rooms are uninhabitable in the winter.”

She was referring to photos of a temple in Fukui prefecture where Emmitt had suggested they travel to by train and stay the following weekend. Eiheiji offered Buddhist meditation classes and lectures on Buddhist life. His suggestion had quickly become something of a joke between Mirai and her parents.

“Are you back onto Eiheiji?” his mother-in-law said, scooping cooked rice into bowls. “A weekend there sounds nice, but it seems like a waste of money. Why not go to Daijoji instead? Their Buddhist meditations and lectures are free, and in better weather you could even walk there from here.”

“I want to spend a night or two in a temple,” Emmitt said. “Daijoji doesn’t offer accommodations.”

“But why spend the night? Isn’t the morning and afternoon enough?”

“We’d get something more by staying there. It would be a unique experience for us. Especially in the winter.”

Her mother turned to Mirai, who was wrapping a short towel around the neck of a ceramic saké decanter that she’d heated in boiling water for Emmitt and her father. “Are you interested in Buddhist meditation and lectures?”

“Not especially,” she said, and then laughed. “I guess it’s always nice to see someplace different, but I’d prefer to visit in the spring or summer.”

“I may be too busy then,” Emmitt reminded her.

She smiled without looking at him. “The house isn’t ours yet.”

She brought the towel-wrapped decanter to the dining room. Emmitt helped her set the table.

“Dinner’s ready,” his mother-in-law called out.

The four of them sat down in their seats. Placing their hands quickly together, they said in unison, “Ittadakimasu.”

The table was quiet for a minute or two and only dinner sounds and the TV announcer’s voice could be heard. Emmitt’s father-in-law stopped eating to watch a reporter discuss the robbery of a convenience store near the elementary school that Mirai and her younger sister Akiko had attended. Two high school students had been caught. Mirai and her mother turned their attention to the TV, too, as the reporter related that the boys had threatened the convenience store employees with knives and made off with less than what it would cost Emmitt and Mirai to spend the weekend at Eiheiji. The three of them agreed that it was stupid of the boys to have ruined their lives over what amounted to less than $200.

“If they got part-time jobs, they could have earned that much together in a day,” Mirai remarked. “Now that they’re in jail, I wonder if they regret what they did. I’ve always wondered about people like that. If they could go back to the moment they stood in the convenience store doors, would they go inside and do the same thing? Maybe they’d think they’d have better luck the second time.”

“Kids their age always focus on now,” Emmitt said. “I doubt they gave much thought about the consequences of getting caught.”

Her father turned to Emmitt and stared at him. He was chewing strangely, as if he’d just broken off a front tooth, but then Emmitt realized that his mouth was only twitching. He seemed either angry or terribly sad.

“Why do you need to spend two days in Eiheiji?” the old man said.

Emmitt wasn’t the only one surprised by the return to their earlier conversation. Mirai and her mother both laughed at the clumsy question. But Emmitt’s father-in-law wasn’t to be put off.

“Do you plan to become a monk one day? If not, it sounds like the dream of a young man pretending he has no responsibilities, and I have to agree with mother – it’s a waste of money. Of course, if you were still working neither of us would mind.”

“Perhaps you should be more circumspect,” his mother-in-law added, “especially considering your financial situation. Mirai has a stake in what you do, too, remember.”

Emmitt poured his father-in-law a cup of saké, then filled his own. Emmitt had given the cups to him on his birthday, bought during a trip with Mirai to Kurashiki and the Inland Sea last year. The cups were examples of bizenyaki pottery and more expensive than they probably could afford. Mirai had divulged the price to her parents when they’d opened the gift box. Her father was grateful for the gift. No one had complained then about the money Emmitt had spent.

“I haven’t officially quit my job. But even if I do, I’m salaried until the end of March,” Emmitt said. “That’s almost two months of getting paid to do nothing. But I’d rather not do nothing. I’d rather look for some way to improve myself.”

“I still don’t understand why you want to quit. It’s good money, and teaching at university is a respectable job.”

“They’re going to let me go next year anyway. Foreigners aren’t eligible for tenure at the university, and once my current contract ends I’m on my own.”

“But you have another year on your contract,” his mother-in-law said. “You could easily parlay that into a position somewhere else.”

“I’ve said it before, I’m not interested in teaching English in Japan. I feel like I’m wasting my life trying to forge a path forward.”

“If you don’t move forward, do you propose to move backward?”

Emmitt held his father-in-law’s gaze for a moment, until the latter glanced at his saké cup and reached for it. How could he tell his father-in-law that it was a more interesting question to him than he might guess? Finally he said, “I would if I could.”

His mother-in-law spoke quickly. “Even so, as Father said, your salary is good, and working at a university is considered fine work.”

“Maybe for others, but not for me. Five years is long enough for me to know.”

Mirai feigned absorption in the TV news while she ate and didn’t return her mother’s doleful stare. His father-in-law, his mouth still twitching, grabbed the remote control and turned off the TV. “Is there nothing but bad news in the world?” he said, dropping the remote on the table.

Mirai continued to look at the blank screen, then returned her attention to her food, her head hanging down.

The room fell silent in the way the snow was silent. Something cold was falling around Emmitt and made him wish for its cessation followed by warmth. But Kanazawa winters were long and cold, and it was only the beginning of February.

He thought their dinner together would have a more celebratory air, as the machiya, which was a further commitment between he and Mirai, and a lifelong commitment to Kanazawa, would soon be theirs to move into, but something heavy hung in the air. Perhaps it was only the result of a particularly hard winter. Or maybe his in-law’s worry about their future went deeper than he realized.

It was hard to argue with his in-laws, who had promised to pay a quarter of the machiya’s renovation costs as a wedding present, and then co-signed on their loan application, even though they didn’t approve of the investment. The house was a mid-Meiji period merchant house, built nearly 120 years ago, and located within walking distance to the train station. It needed much work. They had negotiated to lease the house for fifty years at an extraordinarily low rate, but the renovations, which they were free to undertake, were expensive. It had belonged to the family of a successful fishmonger and included two enormous storehouses called kura. The renovators would need several months to complete the work. Emmitt and Mirai were supposed to sign the lease tomorrow and enter into negotiations soon after with the renovation company. Emmitt and Mirai had talked about turning the house into a small inn.

His in-laws had grown up in machiyas. Mirai and Akiko had, too, until her parents had enough money to tear it down and build a new house, which they did twenty years ago, when Mirai was nine or ten. That house now looked much older, and from the outside it begged a thorough cleaning and a few more layers to make it appear sturdier. To Emmitt it was an aluminum box with windows. Too often, it seemed, that was what modernity meant in Japan.

Mirai’s phone rang, breaking the silence. She looked at Emmitt while listening to the caller, whose voice he could hear but not understand. In Japanese so polite he hardly understood what she was saying, she thanked the caller for phoning and promised that now was a fine time to talk, then excused herself to another room and shut the door.

“Who was that?” his father-in-law asked, but his mother-in-law didn’t know and neither of them expected Emmitt to answer. But Emmitt had an idea of who it was.

“Hopefully it’s the institute I applied to,” he said.

“For a job?”

“No, to study traditional architecture and craftsmanship.”

“Oh, yes, I remember,” his father-in-law said. “More bad news, I wonder.”

As if embarrassed by the insult of this pessimism, Emmitt’s mother-in-law reached across the table to refill Emmitt’s cup and then her husband’s.

Mirai returned to the table a few minutes later.

“It was the school, wasn’t it?” Emmitt said.

She nodded. “They suggested you apply again next year if you’re still interested.”

Her parents asked what the matter had been. Both of them thought it was because of his limited ability to read and write in Japanese.

But no, she said, his application to a local architecture university had been turned down because he had applied without taking the normal entrance exam, which technically didn’t guarantee rejection but was highly uncommon. They were sufficiently impressed with his degree from America and his work history in Japan, but not enough to take him on such short notice. The only surprise about the rejection was that he’d been encouraged to apply in this way, relying on the influence of a Dean, an old family friend, who had promised to get him accepted and insisted that he not waste his time with a conventional entrance exam and application.

The three of them turned to Emmitt as if to see how despondent the news made him. He smiled and shrugged. He was slightly disappointed, but not at all despondent. He had expected the rejection, in fact, and even by late December, thinking he would soon quit teaching, had already started considering “a path backward.” He had even taken a first step down it, with Mirai’s help and guidance, but neither he nor she had shared this with her parents. There had been no need.

His in-laws wore on their faces the despondency that Emmitt refused. Their reactions might have angered him if they hadn’t struck him as so funny. For all their worry and lack of confidence in him, and their criticism over his ability to support Mirai, he felt completely in control of his fate. He also reminded himself that he would soon move out of their home and into one he would share only with Mirai, assuming everything went smoothly with the lease-signing tomorrow night. This gave him all the patience he needed.

Mirai stepped into the kitchen to refill and reheat the sake decanter. Her father needed him to drink with, and Mirai and her mother were usually only good for a single cup, though if given a choice they would drink plum wine and soda, not saké. He imagined it would be for this that his father-in-law would most regret their moving out.

“What will you do now?” his father-in-law said, leaning back in his chair and resting his arms on the postprandial mound of his stomach.

Emmitt answered him quickly. “First I need to make reservations at Eiheiji. The webpage I was looking at warned that only a few rooms were still available.”

No one responded to this. He knew they were referring to “after the rejection” and not “after dinner.” He guessed, too, that they knew he knew.

As always once the meal was over, or even before everyone was finished, his father-in-law reached for the remote and turned the TV back on. Holding the remote in one hand and the saké bottle together with his bizenyaki cup in the other, he walked back to the sofa and sat down.

Emmitt was thankful for the noise. He was tired – not of being asked about the future, but of not being asked about a future he’d decided on, a future no one but he seemed to agree with.

© 2016 David Joiner

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