All I remember of the train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto was being so hungover I couldn’t figure out how to slide my ticket through the feeder to get the gate to open and let me onto the platform.
I kept pushing the ticket into the mouth of the machine and it kept rejecting it. I looked at my sweet man, on the other side already, but I couldn’t form the words to say: what the heck am I doing wrong? (I actually thought something else which wasn’t the word heck, to be entirely frank). Finally, he just reached over the barrier and ran the ticket through for me. The gate swung open.
Once we were through, we found ourselves on a platform that lead to all manner of other platforms. Everywhere we looked, the train station was so busy and large that even he was overwhelmed. The time we spent in that train station in Tokyo trying to find our path to the train to Kyoto was by far the most stressed he would be all trip.
He kept looking frantically from sign to sign, trying to discern where we needed to go. There were more feeder machines and I struggled at every one, so he not only had to try to parse the labyrinth of the station but also had to try to keep me upright while sorting out my ticket at every barrier.
I was of no use, barely able to drag my suitcase along, regretting every drink I’d ever had in my life, but especially the ones the night before at Bar Orchard. When we finally arrived at the correct platform—we were taking the Shinkansen high-speed train to Kyoto—we were, somehow, still early. We browsed the small shops near the platform. Or, I should say, he browsed and I leaned against a pillar.
He was, always, so kind, but particularly on this day. Every time he looked at me from the side of his eye, his head tilted slightly, his mouth turning into a soft, upside-down U, and he would say, “I feel so bad for you baber.” Even in the thick of a monstrous hang-over I would laugh, moved by the magnitude of his care. He really did feel bad for me.
“I did it to myself,” I said, laughing in spite of my headache, even.
“Still,” he said.
I can still see and feel the exact fullness of his lips, the curve of his eyes, the roundness of the emotion in his face. It was the same look he would give me when he would press a fresh ice pack to my head in the midst of a migraine, or when I would writhe around, holding my irritable gut as it cramped for no known reason. Sometimes, he would make a small tsk sound when he made the face, as if he were chiding pain itself for existing within me.
How can anyone care so much for another? How can a human being, inherently defined by the limitations of their form, house such limitless empathy? Those questions might be hyperbolic, but what I am trying to say about what he was capable of is not. I remember, at one point several years ago, I asked my therapist these same questions and he said, “it sounds like he loves you,” which was a response that felled me into a teary quiet and still does.
At the station, he bought a Bento box that he ate gleefully on the train. I didn’t see him eat it, though I heard the sharp crinkle of the plastic as he tore it off the box. As soon as I had settled into my seat, I closed my eyes and fell asleep, one that he carefully documented with a series of photos where he is grinning and I am pale and slouched, oblivious to his photography.
The Shinkansen takes just over two and a half hours to reach Kyoto and I missed all of it. All I felt was the sink of my body into the chair and then the gentle press of his hand on my shoulder and the quiet tone of his voice saying, “Baber, we’re here.” The train was slowing and people were already in the aisles, getting ready to disembark. He told me that the train ride had been incredible.
“So fast, efficient, and quiet,” he said. “Gorgeous views.”
I nodded, still wrapped in a thick shroud of exhaustion, dehydration, and likely alcohol. He helped me with my suitcase and held my hand as we stepped off the train onto the platform.
Outside, in Kyoto, it was raining.
We took a cab to our first hotel — my budget choice — and it was more of a small room then anything else. There was only space for the bed and a small desk upon which we piled our suitcases. The air was grey and I wouldn’t let him turn on a light. Outside, water slipped down the miniature window behind the desk. I kicked off my shoes and immediately crawled into the bed, while he sat beside me, looking at his phone.
“I’m going to get us some food,” he said. “You need to eat.”
“It’s raining,” I said.
“I have a rain coat,” he said. “You rest.”
He had gotten the rain coat specifically for the trip. I think he was actually excited that there was enough of a downpour to justify his wearing it. I nodded and sank back into the pillow. I barely remember him leaving.
When he returned, I sat up slightly at the sound of the door clicking open.
“Look!” he said, shedding his raincoat and settling on the bed beside me.
He was holding two white cardboard boxes and a white plastic bag. Out of the bag tumbled a lemonade for me and a yellow Gatorade for him. I sat up fully. At the bottom of the bag was a KitKat, bright in its foil wrapper, also for me. He showed me the red and black instant ramen pack he had gotten for himself.
“It’s pouring out there babe,” he said, “So many places were closed but this little place was open.” He gestured to the boxes.
When he flipped up the top of the first box, both of us gasped with delight.
“Oh babyyyyy,” he said. “This looks good.”
It did. It was. I think it might have been the best pizza I’ve ever had (though he maintained the best pizza he’d ever had was at Gjelina in Los Angeles).
We sat in our cramped, grey room, and ate together. That was it. The whole of our first day in Kyoto.
When we were finished our food, he tucked the boxes beside the bed and set his iPad up. We watched Brooklyn 99 and I made a joke about this being the pinnacle of married life. But, like any joke, at the bottom of it, I was trying to say something true.
At the heart of our life was always the two of us, glad to be spending time together. In a small hotel, on a grand tour, it didn’t matter much, what mattered was that we were there, with each other.
After the show concluded, he swiped through the photographs he had taken while he was out searching for food. He was a natural photographer, with an excellent eye and sense of composition. A born artist, in many ways. I asked if I could use some of his photographs for a visual series I was doing on Instagram to document our trip for family, friends, and followers (many of whom are friends).
“Oh,” he said, beaming. “Absolutely.”
The next day in Kyoto, we got an early start.
I was finally recovered from the Party Amy of Tokyo and we set off into a beautifully sunny day. I wore blue jeans and a black blazer. My hair was clean.
Our first stop was Ipoddo for tea because this is where the oldest tea in Japan is found, along with some of the best matcha in the world. I bought a full set, whisk, bowl, and neat cannisters of matcha, that we were going to drink together in Vancouver. I have yet to open the set, now.
As we walked through the city, away from Ipoddo, I was struck by how, unlike Tokyo, in Kyoto, nature pervades the city. Trees were irresponsibly full with cherry blossoms and we both kept stopping to take photographs. Along one street, I stopped outside of a bookstore that had a brown bike leaning against the wall. It was very small, the bookstore, and the insides it were lined top to bottom with books.
I took tons of photos while he waited for me outside. Something, though I couldn’t be sure, told me this store was unusual in some way. Later, I would learn that it was a relatively famous bookstore arranged entirely by ‘feel.’ It is now permanently closed. Something I learned late enough in 2020 that I couldn’t tell him. He would have loved that we just stumbled upon this bookstore, would have loved even more that we had gotten to see it in some of its last months.
At Nishiki Market, it was getting colder, but that didn’t seem to stop the throngs of people rushing through the narrow alleyways and coming in and out of the many vendors’ stores and booths. We saw textiles, paper, and fabric stores aplenty amid the many options for food. We wandered a knife store in which every knife was perfectly balanced on floating wooden pegs, the display as impressive as the craftsmanship of the knives.
A light rain was working itself up when we finally ducked into an impossibly small restaurant that sold only gyoza. The menu was one sheet, laminated, and we ordered at least eight different kinds of gyoza. When they arrived, neatly placed on the white plates, they were burning hot. We opened the skins carefully, letting the steam escape and I proffered that gyoza might be one of my favourite things to eat, on a rainy day.
“Couldn’t agree more,” he said, mouth stuffed with food.
We were the only people in the two-table place and the server and the chef watched us, laughing a little, as we ate.
When we finally left the restaurant, stuffed full of food, he said we were headed to the famous Fushimi Inure Shrine, which is the Fox Shrine. I tried to make an argument for pushing the shrine to another day; I was feeling tired and the wind had picked up, though the rain had stopped. We could go back to the hotel room, I pleaded, rest a little before dinner.
“It’s close,” he said. “We’ll just do a quick tour.”
So, I trailed after him as we walked towards the renowned landmark. When we arrived, it was, predictably, packed with tourists of all manner. Everyone was crammed into the narrow passageway that led up towards the shrine itself.
The thing about my sweet man was he had an almost indomitably good spirit; if he got hungry or tired or stressed out, he mostly weathered these states of being with grace.
I am, admittedly, not this graceful.
If I get cold, in particular, everything starts to irritate me more. Crowds, which I tolerate, at best, begin to infuriate me and I start to close down into what is an undeniable grumpiness. It’s not that I’m advocating for this as an advisable way of coping, it’s just that’s what happens to me, sometimes. And that’s absolutely what happened half-way up the climb to the shrine.
When we emerged from the passageway onto a wide open pavilion, there were spare flecks of snow in the air.
“Snow!” I said. “It’s SNOWING.”
To my embarrassment, I began to cry — which makes everything worse because I absolutely loathe crying in public. Around us, people began to pull away, glancing at us in quick, furtive ways.
“Just a little,” he said. “It’ll pass soon.”
“I wanted to be on a beach for our honeymoon,” I said (okay, lightly wailed, if I’m being really honest).
He didn’t laugh, but I could see it, like a small, wavering flame deep inside of him.
“You really hate being cold, don’t you baber?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I do.”
I didn’t laugh either, but I could feel my own small, wavering flame that his even keel good-nature always sparked inside me start to return.
We saw the shrine, briefly, and then, just as the sun was starting to break through the clouds, slanting down onto the trees and pavilion in heavy, angular shards, we descended. He found a coffee and textiles store called Pass The Baton and we sat in the window seat and drank tea. I bought a beautiful, hand-woven clutch. I asked him, once I was warm again, and not for the first time in our relationship, how he could ever love someone as dramatic as I could be.
“I like it,” he said, shrugging. “I think it’s funny.”
A friend of mine, who met and married her partner within four months (they’ve now been together ten years), once told me that everyone is nuts, love is just about finding someone who was largely amused and slightly endeared to your particular version of crazy.
I remember looking at my sweet man over my massive mug of green tea and thinking how lucky we both were to absolutely delight in each other (not all the time, of course, but also, always).
That night, we ate at Giro Giro, which was fancy and delicious and warm (there was no air conditioning) but it’s the walk back to our hotel I recall most clearly. The city was lit by dim, golden uplights, and we walked over arched stone bridges onto which the trees shed their pale pink blossoms. He kept trying to take photos of me, of us, amid the flowers, but the light was too low and even his fancy camera phone couldn’t stop the grain from entering the frame. I watched him weave and doge ahead of me, my personal paparazzi, and I thought Kyoto might be one of the most magic-feeling places I had ever been.
I still think this, even more so, now.
Over the next few days we did many of the typical things tourists do in Kyoto: we walked the Arashiyama bamboo forest, dodging selfie sticks and backpacks along the way; gawked at the Golden Pavilion (where we drank hot, dark tea with flecks of gold within the liquid); hiked up the bamboo forest slopes to see the wild monkeys (where I touched one despite all the signs telling you not to and he gasped, audibly, at this flouting of the rules); as well as rambled the Philosopher’s Path, stopping for fancy waffles along the way, pausing at a temple where there were stone bowls filled to overflowing with bright, impossibly pink blooms.
Though, perhaps unlike others, in Arashiyama, we quickly ditched the packed paths of the bamboo forest for the deserted streets of the surrounding area, stumbling, unintentionally, upon a shrine that housed over 1200 unique Buddhist statues. We were the only people there and everything was so old, so quiet, and so reverent that I felt almost like I could taste the greenness of the moss on my tongue.
On our walk back from the shrine, we stopped at a small eco-garden tea room, which has been run by a hippie couple for decades — they served us simple food in an extraordinarily kind way while rain lashed down outside.
When it stopped, we walked down to the river that cuts along the edge of the bamboo forest where we dined on an 8-course tofu kaiseki at Shoraian. Our table was right by the window and, over the hours we were there, we saw the Oi River lashed with more rain and troubled by thunder and then lit a glowing green by the light. I had read that Kyoto boasts some of the best tofu in all of Japan, and especially Shoraian, but even he — initially skeptical of a tofu kaiseki dining experience — admitted that the whole experience was unlike anything he had done before.
“I love it,” he declared.
After eating so much we were physically uncomfortable scaling the steep hill one must descend in order to reach Shoraian, we settled into a cab and directed it towards our small, grey-lit hotel room. There we would pack up our bags and take another cab to the hotel that he had chosen in Kyoto — a five star, budget-busting affair. The light there was pale golden, warm and husky, like amber when a light is shone through it.
We walked into the room and both of us immediately gasped at its spaciousness, its elegance, the fact that it looked out onto a perfect Japanese garden.
“I was wrong,” I said, looking around.
He laughed, flopping onto the bed.
“I told you that you wouldn’t regret it,” he said. He had insisted on paying for the hotel nights here in full, as a gift to me on top of the already-gift that the trip was to ourselves.
I didn’t explain that I always knew that I wouldn’t regret it; my hesitance wasn’t about that, it was always about what we could or could not afford. I was always thinking about the future then, always trying to see how we could take the Now and make it last into the Then.
None of that future math troubled me in that moment though. I just let it go. I just paused at the window and marvelled at the carefully sculpted trees, the neatly arranged flowers.
When I turned around, I saw he had popped on his ratty, yellow sleep T-shirt. He was stretched out on the bed, flipping through a magazine. I settled in one of the overstuffed, capacious chairs and across the room we talked about the next day’s plans, and the day after that, and the day after that. We gleefully tallied up the time we had left in Kyoto. It still felt like there was enough time between us and flying home then; it still felt like we would go on endlessly.
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