Reflections on Kyoto


Kyoto (Photo: Moyan Brenn/Flickr)

I had been dreaming of Kyoto for 30 years. As a ceramics student, I had learned about this Imperial City as a place rich in pottery and other traditional crafts – in a culture where craft is not considered a caste below art. And while I hoped my work would take me to Japan, years passed and the opportunity didn’t materialize. So this year, I decided it was time to take myself. Alone. For my 54th birthday in May.

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Traveling to Kyoto led to three things I found, one thing I lost, and a life lesson.


Photo: Gail Wasserman

Found: My aesthetic spiritual home. I now know why I favor asymmetrically cut fashion, weathered wood, raku pottery, and generally love things that are worn from use as much as I do things that are new. It is a sense of wabi sabi, an appreciation for the beauty of the imperfect. And returning to my own culture that is transfixed by the young and the new, it seems a worthy reminder of an alternate way to see and value the world.

Found: A fascination with geisha culture. As I often do when I travel, I brought locally relevant reading material. This meant re-reading Memoirs of a Geisha, which happened to be set in the Gion district where I was staying. You can’t recognize geishas during most of the day, but just after 5 p.m., and then again as they switch tea houses at 7 and 9, I would see them hustling to appointments in their finery and tall wooden shoes. Upon my return, talking about Geishas became something of a litmus test that divided my feminist friends into two camps: “It is a system that objectifies and subjugates women!” vs. “It gives women autonomy and independence!” Personally, I believe the latter. Becoming a geisha requires admission into a school and several years of artistic training. It has an apprenticeship system that leads to full-time work and financial support. But most importantly, it is led and managed by women in a culture that is otherwise exclusively run by men. So when a female gets to choose her school, work her way up, and manage the money, I’m down with that option.


Bamboo forest (Photo: Brian Uhreen/Flickr)

Found: A calm that stayed with me long after I returned. I think it sprung from two sources: doing exactly what I wanted (and only what I wanted) for 10 days, and spending time in all types of gardens (cases in point: The Bamboo Forest, The Moss Garden, Tofukuji).

Related: Beyond Tokyo: Hiking Japan’s Historic Villages and Lush Farmlands

My trip also unearthed an unexpected connection to Japan right in my own backyard. In the months before the trip, I added Japanese imagery to my Tumblr feed as my departure grew closer. And to my surprise, in March, as I watched cherry blossoms bloom 10,000 miles away, I realized that more than a decade ago I had planted a weeping cherry tree that flowers every Spring in my front yard and a Japanese maple in the back. To this day, the screen saver on my phone shows my budding Brooklyn blooms on April 15, 2015: a reminder that the anticipation of a trip can be as delicious as the destination itself.

Lost: My fear of being lost. Confession: While I usually maintain a veneer of confidence, I have often felt a swelling rush of panic when I get lost. Japan was my ultimate test. Not only is it a country where I don’t speak the language, but I can’t even read a sign. My first night in Kyoto, my hotelier kindly walked me to a restaurant where I had a reservation later that evening. I had to take a photo of the street where I needed to turn right and the sign on the restaurant door because I couldn’t read any kanji, the local alphabet. And while I can’t claim I was never lost, I’m proud to say I navigated all types of trains (bullet, inter-city, and subways.) And I consider my greatest accomplishment on this trip never traveling by train in the wrong direction.

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The author in Japan. (Photo: Gail Wasserman)

Life lesson: Finally, as I returned home to my wife and New York life, I reflected on the meaning of luxury. For me, it wasn’t the very nice first-class All Nippon Air ticket (scored for only 120,000 American Express Membership Rewards points – a unicorn in my book); or the Japanese customer service, which is second to none. And although heavenly, it wasn’t even the kaiseki (multi-course, Japanese) cuisine that was equally a feast for my eyes and mouth. For me, the greatest luxury I know, is the freedom to take a trip like the one I had to Kyoto – knowing I was coming home to someone who loves and missed me.


Ilene hung this sign outside our Brooklyn home. I loved it so much, I left it up for a week.

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