December in Japan: Vignettes

(Idk why I wrote this in third person. But it’s more fun that way.)


No one talks on the Shinkansen. She eats her colorful little bento and hears not a cough, not a beep of anyone’s ringtone. Quieter than every 7am subway she’s been on around the world.

Outside the oval window, the countryside rolls past in a scroll of bucolic idleness. Short white houses with traditional eaves, golden paddy fields against dark green mountains. So utterly foreign.

It sinks in then that she’s on vacation. All phone notifications disabled. Just her eyes, soaking it in, her taste buds tingling, her ears, capturing the hum of the train and station names in their tonal undulation.

She feels truly anonymous, ensconced in and undefined by a language that she doesn’t understand. She walks into its margins. She’s unpinned. I really do miss that, she thinks.


Living in a ryokan is the closest she can get to staying in an okiya—something her fourteen-year-old self so badly wanted to do after reading Memoirs of a Geisha, watching the film and understanding beauty in a deep unmistakable flash of recognition (though ironically the three main geishas were all portrayed by Chinese actors).

The ryokan room has tatami mats, yuzu-flavored baths in wooden tubs, a Zen garden one glass partition away, sliding doors. She’s smearing a clay exfoliating mask on her face after shower when she catches her reflection in the mirror.

Coincidental but serendipitous. White cheeks, pink turban. It’s like the room has shaped her into some kitschy desire embedded deep in her subconsciousness. Every place has its own subterranean magic.


The cobblestone steps leading down from Kiyomizu-dera are full of temptations: soft-serve at every visible corner, matcha tiramisu, dango rice balls, baumkuchen cakes, yuba, and the absolute cutest Sumikko Gurashi keychains with the green furry penguin.

She’s constantly halting, here and there. By the time they make it down, it’s already night. They’re pretty lost, and it feels like she’s expended her quota for temples within two days. (By the fourth temple, it’s hard to really, truly appreciate it.)

But people are forming lines outside of a dark hulking architecture. Google Maps tells her it’s Kodaiji. Twenty minutes later they’re in and the sight takes her breath away.

The temple is all lit up at night, the last remnants of autumn incandescent in their reds and yellows. A love story is projected onto its aged walls through flashing lights and stirring music. On a climb uphill, bamboos fencing the path are enshrouded in a glow, like some otherworldly portal.

And days later at Arashiyama, walking in the bamboo forest where some fighting scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were filmed, she feels the same awe at how nature has been preserved with reverence. Places have energy — some call it atmosphere or character. The bamboo forest feels sacred.


At an onsen resort in Fujisan, near Lake Kawaguchiko, she thinks of Yubaba’s bathhouse in Spirited Away. The hotel’s nothing like it, obviously, all gold-leaf wallpaper, grand lobbies, balcony views with Mount Fuji smack up before her face. But she sits cross-legged on a couch in the main lobby, and people-watches. A group of Hong Kong tourists waddle by in their loosely tied orange yukatas and wooden slippers, jabbering in Cantonese. Two elderly Japanese couples who must be retired look like they’re in a double date. Young staff in kimonos, constantly bowing, don’t seem much older than she is.

Why did they all come here? To Fuji? What makes a mountain special? They aren’t even climbing it. And when she looks at the kimono-clad staff, she wonders, What it’s like having to bow to a clientele you know is here to strip naked and soak in hot water? Do they miss mainland tourists, or do they detest them, or was it a love-hate relationship?

She gets bored in her head and wanders around, ending up at the massage parlor in the basement, and spends ten minutes trying to talk to the reception lady — a middle-aged woman with tired eyes — in English about a package.

“Do you speak Chinese?” the reception lady abruptly asks in Mandarin.

“Hell yes,” she says.

The Chinese lady does the massage for her. At first all’s quiet, apart from gentle inquiries about pressure points. Then curiosity gets the better of her: “How long have you been in Japan?” she asks, face down, voice muffled.

The hands on her body don’t stop. “Twenty years.”



“Here? In this hotel?”

The lady rubs circles into her back and says yes softly.

“What about your family?”

“My husband is here too,” says the lady. “I met him in Japan.”

“How did you meet?”

Yuan fen,” she says, “you can’t anticipate it, it just happens to you.”

缘分, yuan fen. How to translate this word? She’d thought about it so much over the years. Fate, karma, instinct, destiny, intuition, luck, gut feeling, call it whatever you want. The temples sell it to her in amulets. How to understand it, to connect the dots and wait for them to be drawn.


Dusk comes early in Kyoto. She should know these streets of Gion well. Freshman year she’d spent two months in the city, many summer afternoons just walking down the alleyways around Higashiyama, along the Philosopher’s Path daydreaming about becoming a philosopher, chancing upon shrines, stumbling into temples, licking matcha soft-serve.

In winter Gion looks like an impressionist painting. Every lantern flickers. At a traffic junction she hears a sharp gasp and turns. A geisha up close, in the flesh. The sight brushes across her neurons, light as a cloud, soft as a feather. In the dim light, as streets turn dark, she sees the geisha’s face — powdered white, plucked brows, nose sharp. A living embodiment of an older era, in so young a person.

Later she sees other geishas in the Kabuki-za Theater, onstage (a man dressed in geisha attire) and offstage (accompanying a man) but it doesn’t feel the same.


Tokyo surprises her in the most unexpected of ways: on the Yurikamone subway ride to a museum in Toyosu. She’s staring into space as the subway crosses a bridge, and then the view shifts — a tilt in perspective — and the world outside the window stuns her.

Sleek glass, curved meadows, blue ocean glinting under the hot sun, a city right out of fiction. It’s a part of Tokyo she’s never seen before: futuristic, not in the gritty cyberpunk fashion nor the oriental sense steeped in tradition. It’s the future, clean and sparkly, staring right at her.

For days she wanders around Tokyo’s galleries and museums, seeing calligraphy, history, contemporary art, military, more art, experiential, sonic, and more art — curated and interpretive. On the 52nd floor of a tower in Roppongi Hills, she looks at a Future Sushi exhibit, about what we eat and how the environment we take from will one day change us. She touches stones, stares at wooden sculptures carved by beavers, wades in milky water lit up by dizzying lights, plays at a miniaturized amusement park built for potato chips, marvels at Shingon Buddhist sliding-door paintings of plum blossoms. But still, that subway ride on Yurikamone line, oh my — nothing beats that.


They sit in Family Mart, down coats shrugged off and shopping bags pooling around their ankles. She wolfs down a piece of 159-yen fried chicken breast that tastes like sheer perfection — crispier than KFC and, at this point near midnight, better than the Grade Whatever fancy beef from the day before.

“Japanese people are polite,” she says. They’re overwhelmingly polite, but never obsequious.

“That’s what real politeness means,” her mom says.

“But it makes no sense,” she continues between bites of juicy chicken meat. “How do they even have the energy to be so consistent, day in, day out?” No other country strikes her to be the same.

“It’s the Meiji Restoration,” says her mom, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “They wanted to be better than the westerners, so they did. They wanted to be the best, and then they made it happen. Or nearly.”

So much of Japan is embodies that: its rites, its packaging, its furniture, its plating, its food, its social mores, its remembrance of history, in the smallest of things (like the bus driver who relentlessly greets and thanks every single passenger in the same enthusiastic tone from morning to night), and in the backbone of its national spirit — kept ramrod straight and unyielding, despite the cruel and traumatic arcs it once succumbed to.

5 thoughts on “December in Japan: Vignettes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s