Idyll

Chiyo needs some time to herself now. She’ll get a drink at one of Kyoto’s tiny family-run cafes, forget about the whole thing, and write in her journal while in the city’s timeless embrace. Then she’ll be able to rejoin her father. 

It’s funny. When it all started, she was forced into loneliness, and she resisted with Zooming and Skyping and LINEing and anything that would distract her from herself. But now she actually sometimes can’t bear not being alone with Kyoto. Just the two of them. That’s all she needs, that’s her true love, she’s realized: her city, full of aromas of incense and the buzz of cicadas and whispers of the past, and that special way Kyoto smiles at her with temples, gardens, rivers and mountains.

Part of her connection to the city is rooted in survival. Japan has been through wars, famines, political uprisings, floods, earthquakes… And Chiyo feels she’s been through something similar. Yet Kyoto has remained an island of resilience – after all, it’s been through, it remains as peaceful and calm as a gentle Buddha statue. The strength of the city and its serenity is what Chiyo clings to when she feels she’s about to break into pieces.

She’s trying to reach that state of mind at this precise moment. After the ritual of the hatsumōde, she’s about to crumble. For her first visit of the year to the Shinto temple, she went with her father, as is their tradition. After praying for the best of luck and prosperity in the new year, it was time for the fortune-telling custom of omikuji.

She tried her luck with her usual cheerful expression —her perennial smile, her eyes sparkling— really hoping for daikichi. However, her little strip of paper turned out to be the worst of all, kyo, a curse that appears rarely, especially on new year’s day. “You must be careful about your health”, “Behave yourself”, “Be patient”, “Don’t expect too much”. The past two years of the pandemic have been terrible for her mental health, so this prediction hardly helped. It made her feel lonelier than ever and deeply sad — the last thing she was hoping for was another challenging year. 

Kyo”, she muttered, near tears.

Her dad looked at her and laughed, trying to play it down: “It is just a game!”

That was not what she was hoping to hear. She really needed comforting, but neither her father nor her fortune nor the new year had been willing to grant it. She certainly could find no comfort in the state of the world. Nor in her luck with love. Her only faithful companion during all this time has been Kyoto, and that’s why she asked her dad to separate for a few hours, promising she’d contact him to meet up again.

It’s a windy day in Kyoto, and the gingkos and the maples dance on a distant hill. Chiyo thinks that when a storm hits a mountain, it’s the exposed, vulnerable trees that fall first. Before, being on her own made her vulnerable, just like one of those trees, but now she needs to be alone to feel strong. It is just a game. It is just a game. Her father’s words sound like pure mockery, like emptiness. Why have they been doing this together since she was a little girl if it is just a game? She’s in her thirties now, it should have stopped years ago if it’s so meaningless.

She walks, surrounded by her beautiful city, who enfolds her. Always enfolds her. It is just a game… It is just… The words start to fade away, and she falls into a meditative state on her stroll, feeling the cobblestones alter her gait and fixating her gaze on the beautifully imperfect wood of the doors and the pure gray of the roof tiles. Breathe in, breathe out.

If being single wasn’t already hard enough for her, the pandemic has only worsened matters. She hasn’t been able to hang out with friends, have a drink with her colleagues, or chat casually with strangers. Most of her face-to-face interactions have been replaced by a laptop or a phone — her entire world reduced to a 15-inch monitor. She’s long sick of that.

Kyoto was sad too at the beginning. Used to eighty million visits a year, the city was left bewildered by its empty streets. When the first state of emergency was declared in the spring of 2020, Chiyo walked through an arcade in Kawaramachi to find everything closed except convenience stores and pharmacies. It was depressing. 

Chiyo felt like a character in a post-apocalyptic movie — how could the city be so empty on this sunny day of clear skies and warm breezes? Day after day after week after month, there was nobody in the street. She felt befuddled. Absolutely no one. She would have never imagined seeing Kyoto like this.

Then the signs started popping up all over the city — “closing down” became the new motto of souvenir shops, of coffee houses, of restaurants, and of the hotels newly-built for the 2020 Olympics. This was not merely a financial debacle, but also people’s drive and purpose and dreams going down the drain.

On her stroll to avoid her father and her fate, she stops by Bukkoji temple and watches the smoke rising from an incense urn. She can’t help but think of all the people over the centuries who have sought solace here after losing their loved ones, of the days when prayers and quarantine were the only weapons against disease. At least we now have vaccines, and we understand everything better. At the very beginning, Chiyo had felt hopeless seeing the empty temples. Lonely in her apartment, she went out only to feel the loneliness of Kyoto. And then the two of them, the woman and the city, found each other. Chiyo had visited over seventy cities around the world, so she felt great sympathy for the people who rely on tourism for a living. That’s when she realized she could be a traveler in her own city.

Ever since that realization, she hops on her bicycle every weekend and rides to one or two cafes she really wants to support. The cafes have a soul, Kyoto has a soul, and that is its people, so Chiyo always makes sure to let them know how thankful she is to have places like theirs that make people feel part of a community. She tells them “がんばって”, Ganbatte, to stay strong, and they reply, with a smile, that they will. And then Kyoto breathes in and breathes out, and feels so beautiful, untrampled by milling flocks of gawpers. It hasn’t felt this in a very long time.

And Chiyo feels less lonely when she’s alone with Kyoto. The city has no neon signs or loud advertising to create a simulacrum of life and activity. Silence has driven Chiyo to find a center within herself, and she has gotten to greatly enjoy her own company. Their relationship has been, in a way, a healing process. 

She feels like she’s talking to her city by pedaling her bike: “Hey, thanks for having me. I really like you. I would like to know more about you, and I want to spend more time with you.” And Kyoto murmurs back in the wind and tells her stories about the empress Go-Sakuramachi Tennō, and about the monk Shinran, and long-vanished figures who have faced tribulations like those she faces. “Back in 869, there was a pandemic, and the people held a festival to pray for purification…”. Listening to her city over and over again, walking back and forth in the same places, back and forth, she has become a traveler of time.

Today, those stories of Kyoto’s past seem more soothing than the ones about her future. But she’s not thinking about it, not thinking about it, she won’t fall back into that spiral of loneliness and self-sabotage. She just stirs the matcha tea she ordered to go and savors its herbal fragrance. The palm readers have returned to the streets. That’s a good sign, that gives her hope, but today she ignores them. She sits on the riverbank, watching the surface of the water, wondering how many typhoons have riled this placid ribbon, how many times it has risen in anger to flood the city. She can picture all the people placing sandbags across history to preserve the landscape that unfolds in front of her in the present. She feels grateful for what she has —a roof over her head, health, fulfillment at work, wonderful relatives and friends. She can still enjoy reading, writing, cooking and doing crosswords. Covid can’t take it all from her. The zen garden and the sounds of the cicadas and of a stream remind her that they will get through this pandemic, just like the people of this city always have. This city and its culture have survived. It will do so once again.

Her dad sits by her side. He’s been looking for her. “It is just a game, you’re worrying too much,” he insists.

She feels like getting up and walking away from him again. Their relationship has not always been easy. They’ve never quite gotten each other. But she tells herself she must try to stay.

“I do worry. The last two years were very tough for me. I’ve had enough of it.” 

After thinking for a moment, her dad pulls out his wallet and tucks a bill in her hand. “Go and try again.”

“What? No, it is a waste of money,” she objects.

“No, it’s not. Just go and get another one!”

She goes to a nearby temple and pays for another fortune. She isn’t quite sure if this one really counts. The miko hands her a bamboo cylinder filled with lots to draw. Chiyo prays for better luck and then pulls out a new omikuji. She gets a different number. Phew!

“Here is your fortune. Good luck with your new year,” the miko smiles, handing her a folded strip of paper. 

She opens the strip and reads the fortune.

“I got daikichi!” she excitedly tells her dad, who’s where she left him by the river.

“Ah, ‘great fortune!’ What luck!” her dad says. “It is always better to have a hopeful start to a new year.”

She gazes at the riverbank and thinks that her dad has placed sandbags around her today to stop her from being flooded. The hopeful landscape she is today will live into the future because she’ll just remember to try and try again, until she gets the daikichi she’s seeking.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

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