Friday, November 27, 2015

Japan, Part 8: The Small Moments

11/21/15 East bank of the Kamo river and Shichijo bridge.

We had several activities planned for our last full day in Kyoto, one of which was the famed Toji Temple flea market – something I have been wanting to see for many years. On previous visits, our timing was off, and we had always just missed the monthly event. This time we actually scheduled our Kyoto visit so that we would be sure to hit the market.

11/21/15 Herons and egrets fishing on the Kamo river.
Unfortunately, by that time, we were both sneezing and sniffling through head colds we had caught while traveling, and we knew the Saturday market (as well as our other plans) would require battling the usual crush of crowds we’d encountered everywhere else in Kyoto. With much reluctance, we decided to bag our plans and lay low for the day.

Walking to the Kamo river a short distance from our rented townhouse, we discovered an oasis of solitude. Even on a warm weekend afternoon, the riverbank was deserted – only a few strollers, bike riders and one or two residents reading or picnicking. The busiest residents were the many egrets and herons fishing in the shallow water.

That day on the river turned out to be my favorite in Kyoto; I filled several pages of my sketchbook with those kosagi and sagi as well as the river itself. It was an important reminder that while I’m always tempted to experience the “big” things when I travel, sometimes the smallest moments turn out to be the most enjoyable.

Another example was when we had taken the well-known Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto the day before. A tree-lined footpath that takes about a half-hour to finish at a leisurely pace, it’s most popular in spring when all the cherry blossoms are in bloom, but November was also beautiful on the sunny afternoon that we were there. It was crowded, but not uncomfortably so. For me, the icing on the cake was unexpectedly finding a busker on the path playing an unusual lute-like instrument. After several days in a row of day tripping and rushing through crowds, plunking myself down on a bench to sketch that busker seemed like the ideal, relaxing treat.

Looking back through my Japan sketchbook, I realize that the small moments were some of the most joyful in other places, too. In Takao after hiking to a river to see the fall color, we stopped to buy skewered dango (rice flour dumplings) at a roadside stand and ate them at a sheltered table overlooking the river. As I ate, I sketched the dango vendor. Although I enjoyed many amazing gourmet meals in Japan, that simple snack somehow seemed especially delicious.

11/15/15 Dango vendor in Takao.
Our fourth visit to Japan in the course of 14 years, this trip brought different experiences than the first three, but it ended the same way: Whenever I leave Japan, it’s with a certain bittersweetness that I am leaving some part of myself behind. It’s not that I feel I belong there; as a Japanese American, the U.S. will always be my home. It’s not that the people there are “my tribe”; I actually have very little in common with Japanese culture and habits. It must be that my genes stir from recognition of all those people who vaguely resemble my brothers or my mom or my cousins; all those people who vaguely resemble me. My roots don’t necessarily take hold in that foreign soil, yet they sense the ancestral familiarity that my consciousness can’t quite grasp.

As always, I left without understanding those feelings, but two things were clear: One is that I know I will continue to visit Japan, again and again, to reconnect each time with whatever part of myself stays there. The other is that preserving Japan in my sketchbook enables me to stay in touch with that part long after I’m back in Seattle. Page after page, I still feel it – the home of my ancestors.

11/20/15 Busker along the Philosopher's Walk.

Eating dango in Takao.
One of many sagi fishing on the Kamogawa.

Ja mata, Japan! We'll be back!


  1. I love that top sketch along the river. I think I would enjoy the quiet moments too, especially in a city that is usually so crowded. Did you visit any of the cities that your family came from? I smiled at how you found a busker along the path. It seems you naturally gravitate to them.

    1. Thanks for reading, Joan! We didn't visit the places my family came from this trip, but we've done that in the past. It's always interesting and moving to visit one's roots.

  2. I just read your 8-part series on your trip and enjoyed the sketches a lot. Is it my imagination or has your watercolor work taken on a more Japanese flavor, becoming somewhat more subtle and free-flowing. In any case, I really like it. -- Larry

    1. Thanks for following along, Larry! It's possible that my watercolors are becoming more Japanese. . . or maybe I was just always in a hurry. ;-) In any case, I think I might continue the technique at home. I prefer it, too.


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