Nothing about teaching artistry in this entry. Nothing about workshops or arts education politics. Purely personal reporting from the weekend in Kyoto.
We had always planned that this weekend would give us both a chance to get out of presenting mode and experience a bit of old/new Japan. And the hype is true – Kyoto is a wonderful and charming city. But what has really floored us: the people we have met.
In coming to Kyoto we had help from many. The college faculty team, led by Dr. Keiiji Kubota, set up our hotel reservation at a place with fabulous onsen (Japanese hot spring baths) near Kyoto Station. Friends of Deborah’s family gave us tips for traveling here and advice on which temples to visit. But perhaps most important of all, it was Mrs. Hiroko Onoyama, a former vice-president of Sony and a longtime friend of the Young People’s Chorus of NYC, who truly set us up for our weekend in Kyoto. We just didn’t have any idea how moving those connections would be.
She advised us to visit a tea shop called Ippo-do, and we arranged an appointment. Her friend, Mrs. Miyaka Watanabe, said she would be glad to escort us to a temple once we were done, but that she needed to leave after that, because she was busy. We figured we would stop by, taste some tea, and she’d leave us at the gate to the temple. It sounded like a wonderful way to get started in Kyoto; we budgeted an hour or two and figured we’d make more plans after that.
When we arrived at the shop, we realized we had vastly underestimated the kind of establishment Mr. and Mrs. Watanabe run. Ippo-do is often described as the “grand-daddy of all the tea shops in Kyoto.” It has been in business for 300 years, run by the same family. When you enter the shop you see a host of shop attendants in traditional Japanese outfits. We were greeted by Mrs. Watanabe and a young man named Axel, who was a Harvard grad.
He had been assigned to give us an extensive Japanese tea workshop in a private room. We spent over an hour, tasting the subtle nuances that differentiate the various types of green tea: which ones are grown in the shade, which in the open sun, which are pulverized, which are roasted.
Then Mr. and Mrs. Watanabe announced we were all having a private sushi lunch together, with yet more superb green tea. The highlight for me was the pickled plum sushi. Afterwards, Mr. Watanabe (or "The President," as everyone seemed to refer to him) pulled up in his Mercedes-Benz to drive us to our next engagement. He dropped us off and we scampered into the grounds of a vast complex of different Buddhist temples.
Mrs. Watanabe led the way, and we struggled to keep up. We passed one temple entrance after another, never going in. We passed a beautiful garden gate, and we didn’t go in there, either. Suddenly we found ourselves against a non-descript wall, with a small wooden panel that was about chest-high. There was no sign, no doorknob, no indication that it was anything but part of a wall. Mrs. Watanabe somehow located a sliding bolt that was invisible to us, and she pulled it. The door opened, and she invited us through, warning us to watch our heads. We passed through this secret entrance into a temple that we had not been able to see from the outside, and we entered in.
We took off our shoes, and we were ushered by another woman, who was clearly expecting us, into a private room with tables and chairs. We sat down, and soon we were joined by a Buddhist monk. He was roly-poly and very jolly. He told us stories of when the Young People’s Chorus of NYC had sung in their garden and how much he enjoyed their harmony. He said, “You will hear me, but I have no harmony. Only one part, and while they sing beautifully, I sing low and rowdy!”
He informed us that we would be doing a Buddhist meditation, and he instructed us in the best ways to go about it. He took us out into the courtyard garden. He rang a bell four times, struck a pair of wooden sticks, and we were silent. For an hour. It was bliss. I thought about a million things, but eventually, as meditation will have it, I began to think of nothing but the tree I was staring at, the way it reaches out and fills the courtyard, the way it emerges from the mossy ground, the way it moves in the breeze.
When we left the temple, we were speechless. And we decided to have no more plans for the afternoon. We needed time to let it all soak in. From the people we knew in the United States, and the new people we were meeting in Japan, we had experienced such deep and abiding forms of kindness – it was moving, even a little overwhelming. From small moments of kindness and connection at home, through a ripple effect, we were being treated like royalty. These people did not know us, and yet they made our brief stay in Kyoto magical.
Though we did little the rest of the afternoon, I will continue in the next installment with a report on the dinner that Mr. and Mrs. Watanabe arranged for us at a 10 seat restaurant called Kawakami in Gion – more on that soon!