November 10, 2012

An Ode to Older Women

I had quite the night. Not so much in the "all out, 5am party" sense, but rather in the "I'm sitting on the floor in an apartment the size of my bedroom, looking through Japanese wildflower almanacs while being cooked dinner by a guy I've known for 20 minutes" sense. You know what I mean?

Couchsurfing had lead me to a University student named Joiti (though I would later learn that's not his real name, but rather the name of his favorite Japanese boxer) who offered a place to stay for my final night in Kyoto. We met at the train station by his home and he nearly forced me to let him carry my bags. He was very eager to have his second couch surfer and although his English was limited, we managed to have a nice conversation on the walk to his apartment.

Showing off his sweet Ferrari bike
We got in the elevator and he pushed the button for the top floor "high rise living!" I said, which was met with a slight smile. I thought the expression had been lost on him, but what I would soon find was that, other than incredible views of the city, there was nothing "high rise" about his living. The entire apartment- foyer, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom- were the size of my freshman year dorm room. The only furniture was a chair and desk, a drafting table (he's an architecture major) and a bookcase spanning one wall of his apartment and filled with hundreds of books. His "kitchen" consisted of a sink, one pot, and a portable electric stove top. And two bowls.

Humble living, but he seemed completely content with his sets of books (Wonders of the Natural World Almanacs, Japanese Wildflower reference books, the complete works of Shakespeare, History and Architecture of Kyoto, and a few dozen books on his favorite country: Peru). It also helped that he had a truly incredible view of the city:
Kyoto from the balcony
Homemade Soba & Greens
We talked for a bit and he showed me photos from his many travels throughout Japan. He loves to hike, so I was treated to a slideshow of summit photos peppered into hundreds of photos of Japanese wildflowers. It would have been a painful, "look at my vacation slides" moment if not for his extreme enthusiasm and eagerness to share with me.

So we sat on the floor together for an hour or two, looking through his vacation shots and flipping through the pages of his books. Very different than the all-nighters I was pulling in Tokyo. When it came time to sleep ("Please, I think you should sleep now. You must be very tired. Please sleep as late as you like.") he pulled out a number of blankets and made me a bed in the middle of the room. He did the same for himself in the corner behind his tables. I fashioned a pillow from my sweater and jacket and then drifted into a very deep sleep.

When I woke up, he was already making us breakfast! More soba, some chocolate croissants he had gone to buy earlier in the morning, and a kiwi. Again, this combination may have been painful if not for the love and care that was put into everything. He was so eager to host me and make sure I was comfortable that it was hard not to enjoy myself. The kindness of people, the kindness of Couchsurfers and the kindness of the Japanese people were very filling.

When we split, he told me that "If when you are traveling you are ever lost or need help, call me from wherever and I will help you. I can look up where you are to give you directions or advice for what to do." What a guy!

Before heading to Osaka I wanted to check out one last temple: Ryoanji. The rock garden there is probably the second most famous landmark in Kyoto, after the Golden Pavilion. Scholars and historians have debated for centuries what the meaning and purpose is of the 15 rocks that are so carefully arranged within a sea of raked pebbles, but I think I figured it out! The purpose was to create a place where tourists would pay $6 to look at some rocks. Case closed! 
The temple grounds
I love the way they prop up trees here
This place is gonna rock
Not as impressive in real life...
Rake the rocks & rake in the profits
Impossible not to look like an idiot when using your iPad as a camera.

The rest of my day was marked by three wonderful older women:

I was waiting for a bus from Joiti's apartment to Kyoto station when I heard a tiny voice, "Kyoto Station?" I turned to find an old lady hunched over her walker, face covered in a surgical mask, eyes gazing up at me. "Hai, domo" I replied and she let me know I should take the approaching bus.
I thanked her again, got on and found a seat. I noticed her totter to the front door and have a word with the driver. He turned and said "wrong bus, take the subway." As I got off, she apologized profusely and motioned to follow her. We took the elevator down to the underground and she kept checking behind her to make sure I was following. We slowly made our way through the corridors until we reached the right gate. 
Following my new friend
Before she saw me onto my train, she started digging through her bags. She finally looked up at me, "Sorry, thought I had candy" and made what appeared to be a frown (again, her mouth was covered in a mask). I stepped onto the train, found a place, and then turned to find her still on the platform, making sure I was indeed headed to Kyoto station. She placed her hands together and gave a very meek bow. I returned the gesture and departed for the station.

The next older woman to grace my day was Kurumi's mother, who was a baby compared to the woman from Kyoto, but none the less older. She picked me up from Osaka station and drove me to their home. We had a lovely conversation on the drive and she made it very clear that I was welcome for as long as I needed. She told me that their family owns a small cabin deep in the woods of Nara and I nearly begged to go. "Are you afraid of spiders?" she inquired, and then after admitting I was not a fan, let out a laugh, "then perhaps you will not like it there." I am willing to man-up and deal with it though as I envision their cabin there is the sort of place where I might find Totoro.

We arrived at their house where I found Kurumi, who at 25 is technically an older woman! She helped me get set-up in her sisters room (who's currently at college in Oregon) and I was relieved to find that, despite their assumptions, I fit comfortably on the bed. A private room, a comfy bed, a reading chair, and my own closet was a welcome departure from sleeping on the floor, in a hostel, or the uncomfortable capsule hotel bed. 

The night ended at an izakaya with 6 of Kurumi's friends, none of whom spoke a word of English. Well, that's not true, one of them was able to say "I went on vacation in Mexico" but after I replied "how fun!" that concluded the English portion of the evening. 

I had an amazing night though! There are two things I love about spending time with people who don't speak English:

1. It forces me to use the little Japanese I know and continue learning as well as practice my charade skills. It's amazing what you can convey with some gestures and what I was able to piece together from the limited vocabulary I knew. Body language, tone and the interactions of everyone in the conversation all helped me understand what was being said. It likelistening to a new piece of music: although it may be unfamiliar, you can very quickly comprehend the tone and make some assumptions about the composers intent. 

2. The inability to speak does not inhibit the ability to draw conclusions about a person's character. Communication goes a lot further than just words and I think I'd be able to accurately describe each of Kurumi's friends. Maybe not what they did or what they were interested in, but that doesn't have a lot to do with character and disposition.

It was also a blast because I was clearly the center of attention. Lots of questions were hurled my way: How tall are you? How much do you weigh? Do you have a girlfriend? Can we see pictures? What do you do? What do you want to do? Do you like Japan? Would you like more food? Can we get you something more to drink? Can we take a photo with you? Can I take a photo with you? Can I take a photo with you? Can I take a photo with you?
Me and da girlzzzz
Shortly after comparing where everyone's hips were in comparison to mine
Daddy long legs
This was obviously a very new experience for me as I'm not much a fish out of water at home. Perhaps it is because America is such a melting pot of different ethnicities and looks that we do not give too much attention to those who look different (unless we're trying to prevent them from getting married or voting). It's a fun experience, though one I can see getting old quickly. The language barrier did give me a great chance to lie though! I had Kurumi tell her friends that, although I only spoke a little Japanese, I was fluent in Spanish, French and German because, fuck, what do they know?! And am I an actor? YOU BET! A model? Only sometimes. There is a great confidence that comes with not being able to speak with people.

I'd like to leave you, the reader, with some beautiful words. They are not mine, as you will see in this video, but they resonated within me, as I hope they will you. As I was walking through Kyoto on the way to the bus stop, I passed a number of monks and they had this to say:
Fucking Brilliant

1 comment:

Richard Kraft said...

I love older women so much I married your mom and we made you!