The Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Alone in Kyoto

Morgane Santos

Ponto-chō at night was lonely. The street was narrow, and the buildings were close, too close, leaving you no space to see them in their entirety. Each one had the same wooden, latticed façade so that you could never see inside. Supposedly they were hiding five-star restaurants and brothels, but all I ever saw were those lattice screens. And other than a few oblique electric signs, I didn’t think this street had changed in centuries. It was lonely, but I kept returning.

The whole city was cramped. In two steps you could miss an alleyway or a house or a shrine. I learned that I move too quickly for this place. On my first day I tried finding a “must-see” teahouse. I circled the same block maybe five times before deciding that this building, no different from any other, had to be the right one. Lucky guess. Inside, I drank matcha for the first time and watched other tourists looking through the lattice screen, trying to determine whether this was the right teahouse. After looking at it for a while, many just walked away, defeated, thinking they had never found it.

I hadn’t planned on visiting Ryōan-ji, a temple famous for its rock garden, but it was there so why not. Inside, there was a ledge where you could sit and look at the garden, wearing the slippers they gave you in exchange for your shoes, because shoes are never allowed. The garden had a few large rocks on earthen mounds, with pebbles filling up the rest of the space, rippling outwards. I could feel the sharpness of the winter morning, and stared at the garden, shivering. Slowly I began to understand the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi: the aesthetic of impermanence and irregularity. This garden was perfect in its asymmetry. I didn’t leave for a while.

Nothing looked familiar in Nishiki Market. I tried pickled watermelon, and vowed to never eat it again. Stacks of fish, stacks of tofu skin, stacks of pickled everything. The street was just wide enough for two people with no shopping bags to walk side by side. It smelled like nothing I knew. Someone was selling tiny, skewered octopuses that looked like candy, all glossy and neat. The street was covered with a roof, and lit up with artificial lights. Vendors looked as blank and distant as their buildings, until I approached them. I wanted to try the white fish that looked like grains of rice. I wanted to try all ten samples of squid, each prepared a different way. And that’s when their faces opened up. They were eager to share their food. They kept handing me new things to eat, speaking quickly in Japanese, waiting for my response. All I could do was smile. So I ate and smiled and they smiled and gave me more food.

Somewhere in that exchange, Kyoto stopped being lonely. Yes, it is sometimes distant and silent. It never invites you in for tea, never asks if you need help figuring out how to buy a metro ticket. It never holds your hand. But if you reach out first, if you smile at the Kyoto, it always smiles back.

Morgane Santos is a senior at Berkeley, studying Computer Science and French Literature. She is interested in the poetry of all languages, natural and otherwise.