Rain moistens the soil
Kyoto smells of old houses and incense. The smell is particularly strong after the rain. Houses and temples are built of wood, after all, and as wet wood relaxes, it releases the fragrance onto the gardens and further, to the streets. I was walking through the neighborhood, quite far from the commotion of the tourist sites, and it wasn’t really raining that day, but one could tell from the look of the street surface that it had poured in the early morning hours. A bit early for spring thunders, I thought.
The air was still crisp. I tightened the dusty pink foam mask I had put on before I left the house, but the new setting made my glasses foggy from my breath. I had to loosen it back and I felt the cold breeze on my chin.
It was an early morning, so the neighborhood was at its liveliest. Schoolchildren shouted ittekimasu as they sprinted out the door and mothers replied itterasshai in a softer voice as they closed the door behind them. With each house I passed on my way up the street, the morning song continued. Itterasshai—ittekimasu, itte…—kimas… I couldn’t help but peek behind the opening doors: in all of the genkan spaces, I saw rows of neatly arranged shoes, most of them facing the outside. I was a bit surprised to see that many of the houses still had their floors raised high above the genkan, requiring to take a big step up to enter the living space. The door slid back into their usual, shut position, leaving me feeling like an intruder. I pretended to not have looked inside, and carried on.
At the end of the street, I saw a large tōri gate, once painted in bright vermilion but now faded to a whiteish orange hue. I have passed by this shrine almost every day for the past few months I had lived in the area, and yet I never made the time to visit. Today was the day—I decided to climb up the hill overlooking the neighborhood and check another item off my itinerary.
Once I passed the grand gate, I found myself in a dense forest. The sounds of the city were muted by the trees, and now I could clearly hear the birds chirping. I looked up at the steep path ahead. I took a deep breath and started climbing under the smaller tōri lined over the stone stairs. It was a short climb but it left me out of breath, in front of a small shrine guarded by a number of wooden and stone foxes. I looked around. There was nobody there and the area looked unkept.
I followed a rocky path and I reached another flight of stairs. I tried to climb them slowly, but it still challenged me enough that I had to remove my mask and wipe my breath off my glasses.
The top of the hill was deserted, even the shrine shop was still closed. I must have arrived very early. I admired the neighborhood panorama to the mixed sounds of the morning birds songs and the voices of children at the nearby school.
As I walked towards the stone purification basin, my loud steps spooked a cat that had been drinking water from the basin. He stopped, looked straight at me, and disappeared in the bushes. I felt a shiver down my spine, its gaze unsettled me and I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I was being watched. I washed my hands and mouth anyway.
I made my way further up the path, towards the main hall. But before I could reach it, a strange sound stopped me in my track. It sounded like a child’s soft cry. Was it?
No, it couldn’t be. I was alone.
I followed the sound to the stage in front of the worship hall. The stage was empty, but the sound was still there, even stronger than before. Was it resonating from under the floor? I crouched and looked down, tilting my head.
There they were, three of them, two tabbies and one jet black, the smallest kittens I had seen in years, openly weeping, like little kittens often do when they’re hungry. Their mother must be close by, I though. I looked at them for a minute, my heart melting. Their eyes were open and they were looking at me curiously, immediately making way towards me, not at all afraid. I watched them, frozen, until they managed to get through the vermillion fence and stood at the tip of my shoes, looking up, meowing at me softly, hungry and alone.
I slowly extended my arm towards them and they started licking my fingers. They looked famished.
When I came home, I let them out on the tatami mat in the living room and I fed them kitten food I had bought at the supermarket. Tabby pair ate all of it on the spot; but the black one kept to herself. She didn’t cry at all, but she also couldn’t fight off the other two on its way towards the food bowl. I opened another pack just for her and made sure she ate enough, too. I felt like an okāsan.
“Tadaima!”, I heard the front door open. “Did you eat? I smell fish, it must have not been a very fresh one, the smell is so strong.”
“Okaerinasai”, I replied. “It’s not dinner, it’s kitten food.”
“Kitten food? What would you need kitten food for?”
Yuka entered the room, but froze at the door.
“Are these… cats?”
She looked at me in horror.
“Did you bring them here?”
“I did. I found them at the temple. They were hungry.”
“Well, you cannot keep them. What were you thinking…!”
I didn’t understand. She looked very angry with me.
“You just cannot… No, you absolutely can’t keep pets in the house. Everyone knows that. You are a lodger, you cannot have dogs, or cats, or lizards, or… I don’t understand why you would bring these here. And stray cats, that makes it even worse!”
At this point, she was almost shouting. Her voice got sharper and this only made kittens meow more, fighting for attention, which in turn made her angrier.
“Get rid of them or get your own place”, she concluded.
I couldn’t say a word. Sure, I often felt like I had violated those ever-present rules of conduct living here, but usually it was mundane, like forgetting to take off shoes or not wearing a mask when I had a cold. But this was another level. My face had gone red, my hands started to shake from the stress. I tried to scoop the kittens into my bag but they didn’t want to go, and my clumsiness wasn’t helping.
Then, one of the tabbies peed on the tatami mat.
Yuka immediately grabbed it with one hand, the other with the second, and sprinted out the door. I got the black one and followed. We ended up leaving them by the tōri gate of the shrine and walking away.
That night, I could hear the kittens cry under the raised floor of our house, and I cried myself to sleep.
Gion was full of people, like it always is, but perhaps more than usually for this time of the year, since it was a very sunny day. Phones, endless phones and cameras everywhere. As I made my way through the crowd, I tried to avoid ending up in any of the pictures, although I knew very well that I was not the one the crowd was trying to take a picture of.
“Look! There is one!”
“And there follows another!”
All heads turned in the same direction. A tiny girl in white makeup was making her way towards one of the tea houses. Soft jingle announced her steps as she struggled a bit in the high sandals. She was wearing a black kimono, its lower half embellished with a bamboo motif in gold and green silk threads, shining elegantly in the late winter sun. She pulled it up, showing the hem of the red underdress. Long silver obi sash shimmered on her figure, and a flowing plum blossom kanzashi hair ornament adorned her worried face. As much as she tried not to be noticed by the crowd outside, she simply couldn’t help it: she was the unwilling star of the show, and this walk was her first performance of the night.
Snap, snap. Cameras went clicking, amateur video recorders were shouting into their devices, we finally got one! Look at this beauty, as if they had captured a rare specimen in the jungle.
Flash, and then another, right in her face, just as she was passing by me. She squinted in discomfort.
Then, someone from the crowd ran right in front of her, stopped just inches from her figure, struck a pose, someone else took a picture, flash. And then I could only hear the rest of it.
Distressed jingle of the high okobo sandals. A soft yelp. Furoshiki bag rolling down the street. Audible gasp of the crowd, and then mortified silence, and a single shutter going off.
I couldn’t help but notice how graceful she was in her fall.
A distant thunder
March 31–April 4
I am not sure why I let the plum blossom season slip by. I had grown to like plum blossoms more that the sakura. They get less attention, and yet these are the flowers that bring the hope of spring coming soon.
Yuka has been telling me for a while to go with her to see the plum blossom garden at the large temple nearby. But ever since the kittens, I preferred to spend the time by myself. I would lay on the tatami in my room, pressing my ear to the floor, listening for the soft steps of tiny paws on the ground below. But even if I did heard something, it sounded more like a mouse, and I was left disappointed.
That particular morning was bright and inviting, so I took Yuka’s advice, but I went alone.
I decided on a new route. On the map it looked like a shortcut, cutting diagonally through the neighborhood right to the side gate of the temple for which I was headed. Shops, all styled as old machiya houses, were accepting deliveries when I was walking up, and the street was full of vans and men in white uniforms, hurrying to unload boxes from their vehicles. Women accepting the deliveries were all dressed in kimono.
I noticed paper lanterns, very similar to those I saw in Gion the other day. It dawned on me that I must have accidentally discovered a rather special street.
A group of three young girls, laughing loudly, exited one of the houses all of the sudden, almost bumping into me. Even though they were all wearing kimono, it did not seem to restrain their movements, and they almost ran in it, cheerfully and carelessly. One of them was loudly humming Sakura song, imitating the sounds of the shamisen, which was apparently at the heart of the girls’ amusement. They were having so much fun with one another that they did not see me, but as they passed by me to follow a small street down, I noticed the little red cloths in their hair buns.
This temple, unlike the one I had visited before, was lively with visitors. Large groups of schoolchildren seemed to endlessly flow into the resting area to buy drinks from the vending machine, and then further, towards the main worship hall. I wondered why was it so.
“They come here to pray for good outcome of their exams.”
A girl in white shirt and wide red pants was sitting on a bench next to me. I did not notice her before and I was now wondering how that might be.
“Oh, I see.”
“Do you pray?”
I did not know how to answer that. I was never a religious person and I felt uneasy when someone asked me questions about my spirituality. The truth is, I didn’t come to the shrines and temples to pray. I came to think.
“That’s okay. I have something for you. Please, don’t forget to burn it.”
She handed me a small item wrapped in white paper. I opened it and I saw a black silk amulet embroidered in silver thread. It did not bear any kanji, just a geometric ornament.
“Thank you”, I said, but the girl was no longer there.
The famed plum blossom grove had almost no plum blossoms left. I wandered around the empty garden for a while, holding the amulet in my hand. I liked its texture, it felt good to hold it. The soft shimmer of the silver thread made this object seem like the most precious item I have.
But there were no flowers in this garden.
I contemplated giving cherry blossoms a try, the season was almost upon us. Just around the corner, there was another shrine, one famous for sakura viewing parties. I was hoping that I wasn’t caught in between the seasons, when one flowers are gone and the other are not here yet, left to enjoy no flowers at all.
I made my way towards the back gate, navigating between high school students running around in the temple grounds. As I passed by the main hall, I found a small grove, leading up to the gate. I followed the path.
I looked around. A small white cat was sitting there, in the middle of my way. It was very skinny, and also looked quite young. It meowed one more time and slowly went toward the bushes, glancing at me. I followed.
Later, in the evening, I was back there, just outside the now closed temple gate, carrying enough food to feed seven young cats.
Frogs start singing
My bed was full of cats. Their fur smelled of rice cakes. As they moved around on the bed, their whiskers tingled on my nose. I sneezed softly. They weren’t startled. One of them started cleaning my cheek with its sharp, pink tongue. Another tried to fit under my head, fashioning itself into a pillow. There were cat tails between my legs, cat paws on my belly, and cat bodies resting on my chest. I was drowning in cats.
When the alarm went off, I found myself petting my pillow as if it was a sleeping feline. How silly. I reached out to find my glasses, and that’s how I found out how insanely cold the room was: it felt as if I had stored my glasses in the fridge. I must have left the window open for the night. I dreaded leaving the warmth of my futon but I knew I needed to do so quickly.
Jumping from under the blanket, I bumped my foot on the bedside table. That woke me up instantly. Swearing under my breath, I rushed to the closet to find a sweatshirt. I closed the window on my way. It was raining cats and dogs.
The closet was so small that I struggled with fitting all my clothes on the shelf next to the futon storage. It took me a while before I found something warm to wear—half of the clothes ended up on the floor in one big pile. I had to clean up anyway.
I decided to skip breakfast so I only went to the kitchen to drink a glass of milk. Yuka was frying eggs for her morning meal.
“Oh dear, you startled me! Ohayō. I did not hear you come in.”
“I suppose I must have walked very quietly then.”
“Do you have any plans for today?”
“Just the usual.”
“You have been keeping to your room again lately, haven’t you?”
I spent a long time in the bathroom, slowly brushing my hair. I ran the bristle brush through my hair until it was silky smooth. I did this twice a day now, once in the morning before I left the house and once in the evening, before I went to sleep, when I was finished preparing the morning bag for the cat pack. It simply made me feel clean and tidy.
The night might have been cold but the morning promised a sunny and hot day. All cats showed up for breakfast and I they went through the food I had brought in no time. Then, it was time for the brushing: I ran a small brush through the fur of my friends until they were shiny, and they licked my hand as I did it.
Rotten grass becomes fireflies
The first time I noticed a cat missing from the evening feeding I wasn’t concerned. This kind of thing happens, I thought. Sometimes a cat needs some time for themselves. He came back the next morning, missing the tip of his tail, but the following day he was gone for good.
I thought about him daily for a little while. I hoped he was okay, I hoped he had just decided to live on his own from now on, as a grown-up, independent cat. And yet I couldn’t help but feel sad, deep down. Would they all leave some day? I shook the thought off. But gradually, over time, the group shrunk and I couldn’t deny it any longer.
I took a bus to the mountains. It was almost empty, even though I was going there for a festival. Hydrangea are, just as plums, not as popular with tourists as the cherry blossom, and I suspected that is why fewer people would take the trip all the way to Ōhara. In any case, even if they were interested in seeing the plant of the rainy season in a temple garden, they would apparently rather spend the day at the other shrine holding a similar festival, the one to the south of the main station.
I didn’t mind the solitude, but that day Yuka decided to join me. We climbed the steep stairs to the temple together.
“Do you know the nekomata folktale they like to tell around here?”
“I don’t. What is a nekomata?”
“So, the tale goes something like this:”
“There was once a young maiko, training diligently to become an independent geiko, in the Miyagawachō district of Kyoto. A real beauty she was, and a very skilled dancer, and as many as three of her clients fell for her charms at the same time.
The first one offered her all riches of the world, the most beautiful Nishikikimono and fine brocade obi in the city, and demanded her body and soul in the return. She replied that she would rather keep her merry life as a maiko than care for his treasures, and refused his advances.
The second one was very old, and very much in love with her. He threw a magnificent party just so she could dance her favorite dance, and then he tried to trick her into drinking poisoned sake with him, so they could leave this world together. But she had fresh tea poured in her cup instead of his poisoned sake, and so he died alone of his poison and she kept her merry life as a maiko.
The third one was a very elegant man from another world. He sang to her shamisen melodies and charmed her with his witty conversation. A connection slowly developed between them, and maiko was on the edge of renouncing her merry life for this man. One night, they decided to make plans to elope together, and maiko confessed this romantic plan to her onēsan the evening before. In the dead of night, she cut her lovely hair and prepared for her lover to arrive.
Imagine then how surprised her onēsan was to see maiko in the morning, all ready for the shamisen and dance practice!
But maiko could no longer play the three-stringed instrument, and could no longer dance. However hard she tried, she just couldn’t find her charm again. And she spoke of her lover no more.
One day, maiko went to have her hair fashioned for the upcoming matsuri. Her suspicious onēsan entered maiko’s room to see if the lover was indeed gone from her mind. Walking around the room, she noticed that one of the tatami mats seemed a bit loose. When she inspected it, she discovered an empty space below it—and buried in it, there was maiko’s lifeless body together with her cut hair.
She shouted to alert everyone at the okiya to the terrible discovery; when the maiko entered the room and saw her own body, she revealed herself to be a nekomata, a two-tailed cat yōkai spirit, who could assume the shape and demeanor of its victim but not their skill. Before the onēsan could grab it, it jumped out the okiya window and hid in the temple’s hydrangea garden. They say you can sometimes still meet it there, but if you’re a fair lady, you should be wary of its advances, so you don’t share the poor maiko’s fate…”
It was raining a little that day and the air was opaque in its humidity. White, blue, and purple flowers looked the more endearing in this weather, as the water rejuvenated the plants and gave them a new shine. It was almost dusk. I was walking around the garden.
In the mist, towards the far end of the grove, I noticed a movement. At first I thought it was an animal, and I got scared that it could be a mountain monkey. But then I saw the flickering silver kanzashi and a silver dancing fan. Dressed in a kimono in a gray shade of blue, there was a maiko, moving softly, as if practicing a dance. As an ornament, she wore fresh hydrangea in her hair, matching her blue and purple obi. Her movements were slow, and she grew more gracious by the minute. I watched, mesmerized, unable to move.
She raised her head, and as she was about to look me in the eye—
“Oh, look. Fireflies!”
Yuka grabbed me by my sleeve, and I lost sight of the maiko. When I looked back, there was not a soul among the flowers. It had gotten dark. All I could see were the fleeting lights of the summer shimmering beetles.
Hawks learn to fly
Finally, a day has come when not a single cat showed up to the usual spot in the morning. When I came by, I noticed the bowl I had left there last night untouched by the bush. It was dancing in the sun.
I came closer, not really understanding what I was looking at.
The bowl was full of insects—the huge, black forest ants. They swarmed the warm, smelly tuna, like flies swarm a dead animal body. I watched for a little while. Then I shivered—and I walked away.
I cannot come here anymore, I told myself. The cats have abandoned me. I couldn’t help but think of the last time I saw my mother. When I was leaving, she took me to the station. We sat in the car for the longest time, and yet she could hardly say a word—she would only clutch my hand really tight. I think my eyes now must be as empty as hers were back then, I thought.
I wandered aimlessly for a long time around the neighborhood. Mothers on mamachari bikes only rubbed my loneliness in. Seniors walking around their pedicured miniature dogs made me angry.
Just before lunchtime, I found myself in front of one of the machiya shops I have not really considered visiting before.
It was one of those places where a thick wooden lattice guarded the actual entrance, masking the shop’s window and discouraging tourists from taking a look inside. Indeed, I never took a look inside, even though I was a resident. The thought of speaking Japanese felt intimidating as most of the time, even if I could express my question in this language, I could not understand the response. I stood in front of the shop for a while. Why have come to a place where you are afraid of even just visiting a shop?, a small voice in my head asked. Why was I here? I tried to learn the language, but when it became difficult, I stopped attending lessons. I did not even look for a job, let alone find one. My strolls outside usually ended in temples, where I would sit for hours, watching people go by and smelling the air filled with the scent of old wood and incense. It calmed me a great deal. But was it leading me anywhere?
I decided to go inside.
Once I passed the wooden lattice, I found myself facing the actual entrance. Beside the sliding door, there was a large bamboo basked filled with scraps of silk, the light coming through the wooden blinds dancing on the shimmering threads.
Inside, there was a large genkan, where guests were supposed to leave their shoes, and so I did. The following room looked more like an office than like a shop. In the corner, there was a small, dark desk, covered in documents. In the middle of the room, there was a large table, big enough to fit a kimono. The walls, however, were completely covered by towers of various colorful cloth extending all the way to the ceiling, on the verge of toppling over. The light in this room was dim and the air smelled of moth balls. I coughed a bit.
To my left, there were small stairs and a large, handwritten sign suggesting that the actual products were on display upstairs. I followed the sign and soon, I found myself in a maze of smaller rooms, each housing a different type of kimono.
I couldn’t read Japanese well enough to understand numerous notes left here and there, possibly explaining the differences between various garments. I ran my fingers through the silks. It was a hot day but the feel of the fabric reminded me of dipping fingers in a cold mountain stream. Even the air was different. Here, I could feel a light breeze and the smell of cedar wood.
As I moved through the rooms, I started noticing patterns. Geometric triangles forming larger star-shaped pattern—hemp leaves. Five-petalled flowers—either cherry blossom, plum blossom, or pinks. Maple leaves felt like autumn, fireflies—like early summer. Noticing the rhythm of the nature all around made me calm.
I stared for a while at brocade obi sashes in the smallest of open rooms. One of them was pinned up on the four walls, filling out the whole perimeter of the room. The intricate weaved pattern depicted a town scene from times long gone. I tried to make out the shapes but all I could see were fishermen on long boats in one corner and female entertainers in the other. Their hairstyles were magnificent, much more elaborate than the geiko wigs I sometimes caught a glimpse of these days. I wondered what their lives were like.
My heart skipped a beat. The greeting was said in such a small voice I thought for a split second it could be just a voice in my head. I turned slowly.
The shopkeeper was the height of a middle school girl, and her hair was silvery gray. She was wearing a plain gray kimono and had tied up its sleeves to keep them out of the way, like working women do. Black obi matched the deep black collar of her undershirt and her black tabi socks. She was looking straight at me with a light smile that brought out all her age lines. She looked older than this shop.
“Konnichiwa”, I almost whispered. I noticed my throat was suddenly completely dry.
She inspected my face, as if she was looking for something in my features. Smile left her face and she started talking to me in Japanese. I could not understand a single word, but I felt like I just couldn’t interrupt her. She must have noticed my confused expression but she chose to ignore it, and she kept talking anyway, as if there were the words she must absolutely utter, no matter who is listening. When she was finished, she looked me right in the eye, grabbed my hand with unusual strength, and said simply and urgently: “Kite!”.
Without letting go of my hand, she took me to a room I haven’t noticed before while wandering around. Like all other rooms in this shop, it was lined with tatami, but the light here was different. Three of the walls were made of lattice lined with paper, dimming the sunlight to the point where it was difficult to make out the shapes of objects in the room. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the light. I sat in the spot the shopkeeper chose for me. Without saying another word, she left the room, disappearing behind one of the translucent door.
I looked back at the thick sliding door we came through. In just a few dramatic brushstrokes, an artist has painted three old men standing together. They were looking right at me. I got goosebumps and quickly looked away.
In front of me, there was a large golden screen of four panels. At first, it seemed plain, even showing its age, revealing dark spots of spoiled gold here and there. But as I my sight adjusted and could make out more and more details in the shadows, I noticed the delicate floral pattern completely covering the surface of the screen. I couldn’t name all of the flowers, but some of them looked familiar: the irises, chrysanthemum, peonies, camellias, wisterias. I studied the screen while the sunlight slowly faded, immersed in the heavenly garden. I still wasn’t sure how it was possible that the painted flowers allowed for the golden background to show through.
Hours had passed. The room was almost dark. Sitting there gave me the similar sense of calmness I had experienced in temples, despite the uneasiness caused by the stare of figures painted behind me. I was not afraid. I knew I was waiting for something, although I couldn’t quite tell for what.
At first, I noticed a flickering light in the distance, behind the paper-lined door. As it drew closer, I realized it must be a lampion carried by someone.
The door opened quietly, accompanied by a clacking battari sound. A red paper lamp entered the room first, filling it once again with a flickering dim candlelight. The person carrying it put it down on the floor, just beside the golden screen.
Geiko stood right in front of me, her long, black kimono trailing on the tatami just inches from my knees. I recognized the intertwined pattern painted in silver on the hem and woven onto the golden obi sash. It was the same pattern I saw on the amulet I got at the plum grove temple.
Red light danced on the white face, melting with her subtle red-black eyeshadow and lipstick. She slowly sat down, placed her fan on the tatami in front of her, and looked me straight in the eye. When she placed her hands on the mat, I instinctively followed her formal bow, almost touching her stylized hair with mine. She wasn’t wearing a katsura wig: it was her own hair.
Sharp shamisen notes filled the small room, even though we were the only two persons in the room. The melody sounded familiar, and it was played in such a strong style that I felt consumed by it from the first note. Geiko rose up, holding the fan in her hand, and began to dance, slow at first, as if she was stretching her back. Candlelight filtered through the red paper made the shadows she cast on the golden screen long and dramatic.
Geiko’s movements slowly gained momentum. She opened the fan, then closed it, then opened again, with a loud sound of unfolding paper, creating its own little dance. Her style gradually changed, her movements became more fluid, her gestures—bolder, and her face expression more intense. It no longer felt like a traditional dance, this was otherworldly.
Flute joined the shamisen music and I felt like I was at a summer matsuri festival. The air was filled with the sense of urgency.
I glanced over my shoulder at the ink painting on the sliding door. It was gone.
At this very moment, geiko stopped right in front of me and locked her gaze with mine. Her face was so close I could see all her age lines, covered by the white paint. The music intensified. Who was this woman? Was she a kami? Or a yōkai?
I felt the fan in my hand. Its frame was fashioned of black lacquered bamboo, and its silk material was painted in red, gold, and black pattern. Geiko held my chin with her small hand and led me to stand up.
I extended one arm, and then the other. Long sleeves trailed from my shoulders all the way to the floor. I stamped my foot loudly and began to dance. As I moved, I could smell the summer rain and hear cicada over the thunderous sound of the music. My long, black kimono trailed the tatami mats, but I knew how to move to not step on it. I was graceful, like I had never been in my life. My dance was telling a story I did not understand yet.
But I was suddenly so hungry, that I moaned in pain as I moved.
Never stopping her own movements, geiko handed me three cups of sake, and I drank hastily, like I was dancing in a desert with sake as my only source of water. Then she put a piece of fish in my mouth, touching my lips with her cold hand, forcefully placing the piece on my tongue, and making sure I eat all of it. Another piece of fish, and another. I kept eating from her hand, endless supply of fat, warm slices, finally overcoming my insatiable hunger, and I kept dancing into the night to the sound of never stopping music.