During our final days in Kyoto, we had three major things that we did—one was at my behest, and the other, while my idea, was for him, and the final thing was, undoubtedly, for us.
My activity was our attendance at Miyako Odori, which is an eight-set dance performance by the geiko and maiko (geisha) of Kyoto. The performance has been running since 1872 and can be found at the Minamiza Theatre, which has been in the same place in Kyoto for 400 years.
It is nearly impossible to see the geisha perform in Kyoto, outside of highly selective and expensive private engagements, and Miyako Odori is the only public performance that the geisha do. The dance performance features the bloom of the cherry blossoms and as such, we got lucky with our timing being so perfectly aligned.
I had gone online, months earlier, and booked us front row tickets and when we arrived at the theatre, we were delighted to see that our line was much, much shorter than the line of tourists waiting to buy tickets for that night’s showing.
As we walked into the theatre, we were offered headsets with headphones that would translate what was going on, for a small fee. We both accepted and then were led to our red velvet seats which were, as promised, right at the front, providing us a striking view of the broad stage.
Along the sides of the theatre, geisha played multi-stringed instruments in a striking and unusual musical set that accompanied the intricate dance and performative work of the on-stage geiko and maiko.
He was fascinated by the music, by the instruments, a consummate musician, and I was caught by the details of the costumes, the sets, the ways in which the performers moved. It remains one of the most precise, layered, and entirely unto itself performances that I have ever seen.
We left unable to talk about anything except the performance, walking back through an eerily empty and quiet Nishiki market — vendors shuttered and whole hallways closed off with wrought iron gates.
This is something I both treasure and miss: we saw so much art together.
We opened and then closed down more art museums all over the world than I can specifically recall; though there was one in France that I especially remember that was not so much a museum as it was a viewing of a privately held collection. There were paintings there by the Greats that we both stood, slack-jawed, in front of, stunned that we were really seeing them.
Into this canon of art we saw together, of art we sought out together, Miyako Odori remains a remarkable entrant. Even now, I keep looking up from the keyboard, waiting to hear him rustle around in the house, the words right at the back of my throat: do you remember? Can you recall? You know how it?
And if he were here, I know that he would come and sit on the couch, and I would give up on writing, and we would talk about it. The way the instruments sounded, the rustle of the hand-painted sets, the paper thin and impossibly crisp, the sharp snatch of the elaborately embroidered kimonos.
I find it hard to believe that I am now the only one that saw that show, with him, in that way, find it awful to think that without me, none of what I can recall exists at all.
The day after the performance at the theatre, we went on tour to see the Katsura Imperial Village, which was built in the 1600s and remains preserved in its original condition to this day.
This, I had booked specifically for him, though I loved it as well.
In order to see the Village, you have to win entry by lottery and it is considered one of the finest examples of Japanese architecture and garden design. You have to see the gardens and the buildings in a walking tour but the day we went the group was small and interested — we learned that it takes four years for 1 cm of moss to grow, an incredible fact considering the entirety of many areas of the gardens are covered in moss.
This is a fact that I recall because he was so struck by it that when he posted about the village online, that was the content of the caption.
I still don’t know if he was delighted by the Imperial Villas because of how amazing they were, not just to a layperson to me, but to an architect like him, or if he loved them because I had doggedly done the lottery multiple times in order to ensure we got tickets simply because I thought he would love it. Maybe, most likely, it was a bit of both.
After the Gardens, we wandered the residential area that sprawls around the Village. We came across a small, three-seater sushi bar and ate lunch. Locals were shouting at the baseball game on the television, crammed two to a stool, drinking bottles of beer and sake that were sweating, even though it was grey and rainy outside. I wore a pale pink overcoat and he had me stand in the middle of the deserted streets after lunch and took photos of me until the taxi came to take us into the hills, where the final part of our trip awaited us.
Once we reached the ryokan, Ugenta, which was in the hamlet of Kibune, nestled amid mountains, even though I had read that it would impress us, nothing could have prepared us for the sheer elegance of the place.
Ugenta is only 2 units, one Western-style and one traditional Japanese-style (which was the unit we chose) and both include not only private onsens but also carefully designed furniture and spaces by artists prominent enough that when he walked into our apartment, my sweet man exclaimed the name of the artist — thrilled that he was sharing space with the artist’s work. I could look up the name but I don’t want to — because he was the one who knew and without him, I don’t want to learn the name.
As the porter helped us with our bags, he asked us to choose our breakfast and dinner meals — there was the option of Japanese or Western breakfast, and then kaiseki (a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner) or shabbu shabbu (which is Japanese hot pot). We told the porter we would fill out the dining preference form shortly and then as soon as he closed the door gently, he and I looked at each other, our eyes wide, but his especially gleaming, and said, “Oh my god!”
That’s how incredible this place was. We had chosen it as our final stop in Japan (though we would sneak 1 more day in Tokyo before we left, spending that day at the Yayoi Kusama museum) because of its reported elegance and bliss.
By no means did these reports disappoint.
We filmed a tour of the apartment for our families, him goofing off in front of the camera, and me behind it, trying not to chortle too loudly as I watched him pop out from behind doors and ham it up in the bedroom; then we put on our yukatas (casual kimonos), settled into the hand-crafted chairs, and sipped the matcha tea they left for us in large mugs, ate the walnut and white chocolate pastries (he let me have his, choosing instead to eat the almond croissant), and listened to the sound of the river that ran just outside our windows.
The days we spent at the ryokan were restorative. We woke up late, him always even later than me, and ate breakfast, read the newspaper together, looked at our photos of the trip. Then, he listened to podcasts or read while I devoured the books I had carried all over Japan with me — six in total. I would read them all while at Ugenta. The time there together never felt tight against us; we just soaked in the beauty of the place we were in, both literally and metaphorically.
“God this is nice,” I said one afternoon, apropos of nothing but the light on the leaves of the trees outside, the perfect quiet of the apartment, the sound of his soft breathing. He looked at me, the creases by his eyes showing up as they did when he was really touched.
“It is,” he said. “Just getting to be here with you.”
“Exactly,” I said.
At dinner hour, the food would keep coming and we would keep marvelling at its freshness, its perfect preparation. I would clap when he perfectly fried a red squid on the small grill in the centre of the table and he would declare himself, “a chef!”
One night, we were surprised with a cake — for our newly wedded state — and personalized gifts from the owners of Ugenta. Another, we were sent a bottle of sparkling sake. And on yet another night, we opted for an in-house massage.
The evening the masseuse came to our apartment — she was an elderly woman, barely five feet tall — she looked up at us (him 5’11, me 5’10) and called us, “very tall.”
She said that I would go first and she had me lay down on my soft mattress on the tatami matted floor. When she first touched me, at first, I thought she had tripped, accidentally fallen into my body. That’s how sharp and unflinching her fingers felt — but she had not fallen. Over the course of the hour, in order to keep from crying out in pain, I bit the pillow. Still, there was no real escape from this wizened woman’s stabbing fingers; they were everywhere.
When I finally emerged from my massage, my sweet man looked up from the dining room table where he was finishing a late night snack and reading the newspaper. He had a huge grin of anticipation on his face.
“Was it sooo good baber?” he said.
I smiled, almost laughing but not allowing myself to, lest I give myself and the joke I was about to enact, away.
“There are no words,” I said. “I can’t wait for you to experience it.”
He didn’t even make it 3 minutes into the message before he yelped in pain so loudly I could hear it through the paper walls of the apartment.
After, when the woman had gone, he and I looked at each other and dissolved into a gale of giggles, the kind that’s rare and almost always borne of a certain perfect kind of shared alchemy.
“I’m going to bruise,” he said, touching his limbs gingerly. “How did you not make a sound??” (It bears noting that the next day, when we awoke, we felt strangely, eerily refreshed, so though painful, I do believe this woman worked a kind of magic nonetheless).
“I couldn’t ruin it for you,” I said, still cackling.
I miss this too, immeasurably: all of the shared jokes we had between us. For months after the trip to Japan, I would lean over and poke him in the shoulder and he would immediately know what I was referencing. He would laugh and laugh laugh.
At other times during the dreamy days we spent at Ugenta, I would look around and not see him, would go through the apartment: through the writing studio, the Zen garden, the dining area, the bathroom, and still not see him and then I would know.
I would climb up the stairs to the rooftop patio and there I would find him, sweating, steaming, pickling even in the hot water of the private onsen.
Oh, how he loved to take a bath.
Up on the rooftop, the greenery closed in around the tub and the outdoor shower and it was all a light wood and leafy paradise. The waterfall that was just a stone’s throw from Ugenta could be heard speaking in its own tongue. I would come over to the side of the bath and sit, the steam immediately coating my skin in another skin.
He would look up from the hot water and grin at me. He had nothing with him, no book or music or iPad. It was just him, naked and content, soaking in the water, looking up at the dark, ferociously green mountain. Sometimes, he’d have been up there for over an hour by the time I joined him.
“This is the life baber,” he would say, sweat at his brow line like a diadem. “This is it.”
As always, you can reach me by hitting “reply” on the Sunday email or by leaving a comment.