Summer in Kyoto, the heat sinks over the day early. Not the bleaching heat of the California desert, nor the hot and bothered blustery seaside heat of the Oregon coast, but a heavy, swamping, wet, earthy, fragrant verdant heat. Mosquitos everywhere, the Japanese call them Ka (sounds like the word car) , the short sharp sound suits them perfectly.
Honda wouldn't start Matcha icecream melting fast: Ka bit me two times.
The children were small, it was midsummer and we had travelled by Shinkansen and then hired a car. The bullet trains are reliable, fast and clean, train bento – ekiben, a kind of boxed lunch that varies from area to area, following local specialties and delicacies with the trainline, you can buy them in the station or sometimes, on the platform itself. Pig didn’t buy me and the kids ekiben. The kid’s versions come in cute shinkansenkun cute train boxes, the kids looked at them longingly. I fumbled in my purse, and came up with enough for two onigiri rice balls filled with tuna mayo, one for each kid, and a bottle of sweet yoghurt drink each. Charming had bought himself a huge ekiben, piled high with chestnut rice, sliced tonkatsu breaded pork fillet, little dishes of seaweed and burdock, thick sweet salty sauce, a small square of salted salmon, two slices of pink sour pickled daikon to cut through the fat of the pork, a pile of shredded cabbage, some kind of egg cooked with dashi broth. I said nothing. This was normal. This was how life went. I often didn’t manage to get a lunch or a breakfast, and sometimes no dinner either. I didn’t dare ask. We had been forced onto this summer trip with him, and I was determined not to fall into any mistakes that would end up with us stranded over three hundred miles from home. It felt dangerous. I had never gone so far away from home with Pig. I had hoped never to have to try and negotiate that minefield. Still, I reasoned with myself, it was Kyoto, I wanted to see Kyoto desperately.
The Nozomi train took about two hours from Tokyo station to Kyoto. We were there by ten am. Pig guzzled his bento before we were barely out of the station, and I sat there, pulling pieces of onigiri off the little triangle, and putting them in the baby’s mouth, my arm around the Girl, her head on my shoulder, nuzzling into me, nervous at being out of her comfort zone. Nervous being with her dad. We hated these times, we lived for him not being home, for him being at work, for him not being there with us. We could not be us. Girl couldn’t be kooky and loud and giggly and sometimes dramatically out of control in violent meltdowns when things got too noisy, too busy, too intense for her. Boy, just a baby, was a quiet child, huggy and sweet. He held onto me for dear life, a life raft, a tree. Him a bird, perched in my branches. As we sat and the train rolled and finally reached top speed, hurtling a million miles an hour for Kyoto, smooth and safe, efficient and clean, the three of us huddled into each other, sheltering from the storm of Pig’s moods. He was boyant, friendly, conversant, happy. Pig was in one of his good moods, he was not working, he was going on vacation, and was telling me stories of Kyoto, and tea shops, and shrines we would visit. I played along. “You like Kyoto maccha, Paltry-chan. You buy it all the time. You buy every day.” I laughed politely. I had no idea that the powdered green tea I bought was from Kyoto, illiterate as I am, I just knew it was strong and had a sweet hint to it’s flavor, a mildness I enjoyed. ‘Honto? Really?” I replied. “I didn’t know I like Kyoto tea.” “You like Kyoto, P-chan. It is real Japan. It is serious Japan. It is not playtime like Tokyo. You like Kyoto.” I smiled and nodded and smiled and nodded again.
Noh face. Mask in place My fears too scared not to hide Laughter betrays me
We were there, scenery a blur, you couldn’t even see what you were hurrying by, “My boss. Big jerk. No good.” He opined dully. “My work, very busy. Big problem.” I came to life, and made the appropriate replies. “Im sorry to hear that. Dojoushimasu. Sympathy.” I nodded and looked him in the eye. He was still handsome. Black hair, brown eyes, gone to fat a bit I guess, dusky skin, soft hands. He disgusted me with an intensity I came to fear. Too many backhanders, too many kicks. Too many push overs. Too many hungry days while he ate and earnt good money. I starved not through lack of money but his cruelty. Too many. Too much. He revolted me. “How can I help?” I asked him gently. I meant it. How could I help! What could I even do to make him feel better? Maybe then he wouldn’t hit me and I could make a life of being mommy, and trying to avoid sleeping with him. Maybe. “You can’t.” it was sudden. A jolt, a darknening of mood. A danger sign.
I grabbed the kids, he got the cases, I strapped the baby into the little red stroller, he turned his head and fell asleep quietly, putting Girl on my hip, carrying her so she might feel safer, I hauled us out of the train into the bright Kyoto sunshine. I liked Kyoto already. It felt calmer, quieter, smaller, more embracing, not the fast river of human life that is Tokyo with its bright neon lights and fast pace of life. Outside the station, we walked to the hotel, it was just over the station bridge, still stairs to climb with children and a stroller, while he carried cases. Still too heavy, too much, too far with so much to carry. We could have got a taxi, for just five hundred yen ( five bucks). I sighed. This was how this was going to go, I could see it.
I remember opening the door to the suite he had booked. Two bedrooms, a living room, in a lovely modern hotel, western style room, with a place for our shoes. Mine. My socks falling to pieces. I was always having to take my shoes off in Japan, and always humilitated because I could never afford socks, and mine were falling to pieces, my shoes smelly and mouldy and old. I took the baby’s Miki House slip on shoes off, and then finally, my Girl, who was looking desperate at this point, too much Pig, too much change, too much for her. She buried her head in my legs and cried, and I carried her to the window and held her. We looked out over Kyoto, and I told her of the adventures we would have, the places we would go, the things we would do, and told her to look out for fairies. I was sure there were fairies in Kyoto, just waiting to tickle her and play tricks on me. She tickled the back of my neck. “Fairy, ma! Fairy!”
And I sit here and cry for days gone.
Shamisen was plucked Kiss your eyes and feet for luck: Kyoto fairies