The World Tour Compatibility Test: Kyoto

Monday, February 19th, 2007

By piper

by Elizabeth Koch

Part travelogue and part convoluted love story, The World Tour Compatibility Test is a series of true stories set in exotic locales, as two American writers decide whether to break up or move in together. Click to catch up on Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, a little more Tokyo, and two entries in Nara.
Todd_and_I_in_M._gardens.jpgWe wake up around 7 a.m. the next morning in the Nara Hotel to the sound of pigeons mating in the wall panels. I roll over and try to ignore the pit in my stomach, the raw hunger that may have something to do with my decision last night to stick my finger down my throat and unload dinner into the lobby toilet. But I don’t recognize the feeling as hunger. What I recognize is that Nara has failed me. The ancient temples and sacred deer were supposed to unite me with my higher self, or at least teach me to approach people as something other than the enemy, but right now I’m making the whole world the enemy.

Todd curls up behind me, his skin humming with warmth. There is nothing more alive than Todd’s skin in the morning. “Please tell me we’re not doing this another day?” he moans in my ear. I’m thrilled that for once I’m not the only one with a bad attitude. We spend the day writing and working and leave for Kyoto in the early evening, a day earlier than planned.

The ryokan Todd booked us in Kyoto can’t take us a day early, so we have to make alternative plans. We make the mistake of choosing a hotel located fifty meters from the city’s main train station. The “New Miyako” appears to be the Japanese incarnation of The Hilton: 986 rooms, eight restaurants and a reception counter as long as an airport terminal.

When the bellboy drops off our bags, he loiters so long that, despite considerable proof that tips make Japanese people miserable, I push 600 yen in his hand. He grins, bows, and leaves.

“See?” I say to Todd. “Not everyone here is anti-tipping.”

“He probably smelled a stupid American in you.” Todd takes off his sneakers. “I’m tired.”

“I’m hungry,” I say.

Todd puts back on his sneakers.

It’s 10 p.m., and none of the eight restaurants in the New Miyako is open. The concierge tells us that if we walk directly behind the hotel, we’ll find some nice late-night dining options.

The neighborhood behind the hotel is so dark and tomb-quiet that breathing seems irresponsible. I grip Todd’s hand and pull him close to me. “Thank you for touching me,” he whispers.

The restaurant resembles the inside of a 1980s Winnebago. It’s a ten-seater, this restaurant, with tray tables that pull down from the wall, each stacked with ceramic bowls and rice-crusted dishes. We sit at the counter and smile at two soft-faced Japanese women in sleeveless prairie dresses and ruffled aprons. One reaches under the counter, pulls out two bowls, and plops them down in front of us. Inside the bowls are curly chicken shavings that resemble recently cut hair.

I lean into Todd’s ear. “I think they gave us their dinner.”

We leave hungry.

Halfway back to the New Miyako, a high-pitched shout and racing footsteps break the silence. My first thought is that someone is being murdered. We turn around, but can’t see anything. In the dark, shouting, “Sumi massen! Sumi massen!” one of the women from the restaurant runs towards us in socks and flip flops. She’s waving around the 1000 yen note I’d left as a tip.

“Elizabeth,” Todd groans, “look what you’ve done.”

She tries to hand me the money, but I shake my head no. “For you,” I say firmly, and fold her fingers over the bill.

She frowns, and uncurls her fingers slowly, inspecting the money as a child might a butterfly. We leave her standing in the middle of the road. Todd sighs, but says nothing.

I wake up in the middle of the night with cramped feet and a clawed-empty stomach, which is unusual. I’m not used to going to bed hungry. I’m used to going to bed so full that I fall into a food coma and don’t wake up until morning, fresh from a nightmare that I’m lost in an underground club full of naked children with machine guns strapped across their chests.

The room has a mini-fridge with no food, only liquids. I open a can of “Sweat Juice,” which tastes precisely like sweat, but my bones are achy, so I force myself to drink it. I briefly wonder if my bulimic stint the night before has already given me osteoporosis.

“What’s the matter?” Todd mumbles.

“I’m being neurotic.”

“Watch 24,” he says. Todd brought 24, season 3, on the trip so we’d have something to do on long flights between continents. Todd is six episodes ahead of me because I worked the whole way to Shanghai, and he wants me to hurry and catch up with him. But I resist Todd’s efforts to do stuff as a couple, even the most basic things, like grocery shopping and writing in the same apartment, which infuriates him. Matching my schedule to Todd’s makes me feel weak and co-dependent, like I’ve lost my identity and am merely one of Todd’s appendages. No amount of therapy has kicked my desire to do everything alone.

For breakfast, we hit the “Le Plaisir” buffet, which from the hallway resembles a small cluster of mountain ranges. Five circular islands hold boat-shaped bowls brimming with shellfish salad, nutty pates, and pickled vegetables. The salad bar’s topping selection stretches sixty bowls long, with broccoli, cherry tomatoes, okra, and hearts of palm chopped fine as confetti. The waffle-making counter spills into the dessert platter, which is as pretty as a Wayne Thiebaud painting: macadamia nut cookies brushed with dark chocolate, mocha mousses in champagne flutes, thick slabs of coconut cake sprinkled with pink flower petals. On my third trip I notice that Japanese customers have a different, more delicate approach to the buffet than I do. The portions on other people’s plates are the size of small rubber balls, with plenty of white space between them.

“Is it rude to mix all your food together on one plate?” I ask Todd.

“If you didn’t, we’d have to sit in the ballroom. You had enough yet?”

“No, actually. It’s never quite enough.”

The website to the Ryokan Shimizu brags that it’s “a short, 7 minute walk from JR Kyoto Station.” It fails to mention the bizarre labyrinth of dead end streets with no names that one must navigate to get there.

Half an hour into our short, seven-minute walk, we knock on the door of what we believe is the Ryokan Shimizu. The man who answers checks our map and offers to walk us to the Ryokan Shimizu’s doorstep. He has excellent posture.

On the way, he mentions brightly that he’s the servant of an emperor of some sort.

“You know of him?” he asks with pride.

Todd and I shake our heads no.

He grimaces as if in physical pain, and hurries ahead of us. “Your ryokan,” he says, and points up a slight hill. When we turn back around to thank him, he’s gone.

A tall, wooden fence and low-bending trees obscure the Ryokan Shimizu from any customer who may wish to find the place. The only feeling of welcome comes from the patio furniture, where a Care Bear and a plastic gnome with a little red hat appear to be having a tea party.

Todd found the ryokan with a sense of humor, which makes me want to squeeze him.

The screen door is made of Japanese-lantern material, which is to say paper. “Should I knock?” Todd asks.

“I don’t know. You might puncture it.”

Before we can decide, the screen door opens and a painfully skinny Japanese woman with braces blinks up at us. Her braces are so bulky she can’t quite close her mouth, which reminds me of the James Bond character ‘Jaws’ from Moonraker. I elbow Todd, and he elbows me back.

She hands us a piece of paper that says, “Guest Rules.” It reads as follows:

No smoking.

No shoes.

No alcohol.

Must be in by midnight.

Check-out 10 a.m.

“What happens if we’re not in by midnight?” I ask the woman.

She starts to speak, but her lip catches on her braces.

“Don’t antagonize her, Elizabeth.”

“Door lock at midnight,” the woman says.

The ryokan smells like packing peanuts and new paint. The floor is wooden, slippery as a bowling lane. There are no posters, no potted plants, no dust or loose hairs. The only decorations are miniature plastic kitties and Buddhas strategically placed here and there—above the shoe rack, near the cash register, hiding behind the computer monitors in the Internet center. I poke a laughing Buddha in the belly and he squeaks, like a chew toy.

Our room is about 7 x 7 feet, which is the bad news. The good news: the bathroom is also 7 x 7 feet. The shower alone could service my entire Saturday morning YMCA water aerobics class.

We drop off our stuff and spend half an hour interrogating Metal Mouth about the pros and cons of taking a cab versus a bus to the temple area. I get antsy. “I’m going to walk,” I say, and head outside.

“Why are you so impatient?” Todd shouts after me. I don’t want to take the time to explain the terrible feeling lurching around inside me—that time is running out. I need to hurry up and get to Kyoto’s spiritual center before I give up on transforming myself into a calmer, kinder, better person. I’m about to throw in the towel. I need to get a move on.

It’s a terrible feeling, not to trust yourself.

Kyoto is really two distinct cities. The half near the train station (and the Ryokan Shimizu) is choked with cars and buses and belching factories and therefore bears an unhappy resemblance to Detroit. The other half bursts with weepy greens, mountains of katsura trees and towering bamboo forests from which 2000 shrines and temples rise like rafts from the earth.

We agree to hit the Ginkakuji Temple, or the Silver Pavilion, first—mainly because it’s near the Philosopher’s path, a 1 km trail where the Zen philosopher Nishida Kitaro paced every morning, contemplating ‘Nothingness as the Negative Space of Experiential Immediacy’ until he decided that thoughts and emotions are no more real than dreams. This is something I need to learn, that I’m making up my bad feelings—mainly so I can be nicer to Todd.

We follow a winding road that takes us past candied apples stands and folding tables crowded with toys, Japanese puppets and wooden figurines with bobbing heads, to the Ginkakuji Temple. At the entrance, we pay 500 yen, and spend five minutes staring at pretty wood building with a Zen garden in front. We have no idea what we’re looking at.

“What’s the difference between a shrine and a temple?” Todd asks me.

“I dunno.” I study a patch of moss growing on the temple steps.

“They didn’t teach you the difference at anger camp?” Todd asks, meaning the silent meditation retreat I attended last April.

“It was silent, hon. I didn’t learn how to do anything but breathe.”

The philosopher’s path isn’t much different than any other path except for the cherry trees arching over our heads, and for the cliffhanger dive the path takes on one side. Todd and I walk arm in arm, clutching one another so he doesn’t fall off the edge into a canal.

The cherry trees aren’t in blossom, but they buzz with life; a ghost of pink petals lifts off their branches.



“I’d really like to go back to Tokyo.”

“You liked it that much?”

“I think I did.”

“Well. We could go tomorrow, if you’re okay with leaving here a day early.”

“I’m okay with that.”

Todd kisses my cheek. “I’ll go anywhere that makes you happy.”

“Don’t say that.”


“Because, it shouldn’t all be about me and my happiness. If you’d rather stay here, just tell me.”

“Don’t get angry.”

“I’m not angry.”

“You’re blinking a lot.”

“I have a long history with pharmaceuticals.”

“Your mental illness period.”


“Glad that’s over.”

To be continued…

7 responses

  1. Gigi says:

    I’m glad we’re starting to get some backstory! Sometimes I feel I know Elizabeth so well, and then sometimes she’s a stranger. But I think learning more about her past will help us all understand why she acts the way she does with Todd…

  2. Adrian says:

    Another stunning set of words! Well played, Ms. Koch!

  3. Johnny Jump Up says:

    I think Elizabeth is a very good writer. That, in itself, is an accomplishment most people won’t reach, just to be a good writer. (For the record, Steven King thinks he’s a “good” writer, while he considers Hemingway and Fitzgerald to be “great” writers. He also says a good writer can never become a great writer. It’s an art thing. But that’s a different hand of cards altogether)

    So, if I’ve been critical in anything it’s that I haven’t understood the root of Elizabeth’s angst and trauma and why Todd hangs with her. This Kyoto installment of the story starts to illuminate that dark corner for me, and I appreciate it.

    I like how she acknowledges, at least internally, her need for growth. She knows she’s a pain in the ass a lot of the time. Perhaps Todd’s acceptance, his sort of surrender to her quirkiness is part of the bond.

    Temple re-birth is a wicked awesome way to go. E-liz, I approve.

  4. amanda says:

    engaging and humorous your words capture my attention, more please!

  5. Ben says:

    Still plenty of fun, but this installment’s more thoughtful and measured than those previous, and so more satisying. Looking forward to the next.

  6. Cecilia says:

    love the rat-a-tat-tat. and the cliffhanger ending. such a great read, once again!

  7. majece majece says:

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