I have been in Williamstown the past couple of days and have collected some of my thoughts in the midst of jet lag. The first deals with disbelief: in the mornings, walking down Spring Street for coffee rather than wandering Rokkaku-dori aimlessly leaves me feeling odd and a tad displaced. Instead of seaweed rice and chocolate croissants for breakfast, I have Paresky bacon and eggs. Days ago, I was largely unknown within a city of passerby and fleeting glances; today, I am in a place where the opposite is the case — the level of anonymity is now gone. Why has adjusting been more difficult than expected? It’s as if Williamstown had become more foreign while I was gone, or rather, that I became so intimately connected with Kyoto during my all-too-brief stay.
Paradoxically, the thought that follows is how relieved I was to return in light of unforeseen circumstances. Traveling back to Massachusetts was a taxing endeavor, to say the least. After leaving our hostel at 10 AM on Monday, reaching the airport in Osaka at 11, flying around 1, and arriving in Narita at 4, our flight was continually delayed until its cancellation at 1:30 AM the next day. Getting through immigration and customs was an ordeal that took almost three hours, and trying to obtain a hotel room was actually impossible — 6,000 travelers had flights cancelled that night, and all hotel rooms were already booked. As such, we spent the night in Narita’s international terminal, sleeping bags and disaster crackers included.
Upon being woken up by the blinding sun at 8 AM, I took a walk to examine my surroundings, which seemed akin to a post-apocalyptic refugee shelter. Sleeping bags were strewn around, people haphazardly scattered across the benches and floors. Anger and weariness defined the collective emotional state. To avoid insanity, I spent my morning alone, finishing my book and listening to music by the outlets. Much to my surprise, I had a positive encounter during that time: I met two Canadian female athletes who had recently come from some international competition, and I later found out that one of them, Taylor Henrich, is on her way to Pyeongchang 2018 for ski jumping! People will always surprise you, many times negatively but sometimes in the best possible of ways.
We waited for what seemed like eons to board our 5:55 PM flight to Newark. Passing the time was intolerable, to the point that I grew numb to my emotions and surroundings. After one long flight to New Jersey and a shorter one to Albany, I am met (yet again) with bad news: my carryon suitcase had been left behind in the transfer, and so, I spent another hour and a half at the Albany Airport sorting out my business. When Williamstown finally appeared in sight, I was like a sailor adrift spotting land on the horizon: the comfort of my bed awaited me.
It’s a shame that my experience in Kyoto was dampened by this seemingly interminable delay — at the time of writing, I’ve yet to fully divorce this painful final memory from the mostly pleasant ones that precede it. Yet, as I continue to reflect on this trip, whether in a booth in Lee’s or at the museum hosting desk, my third and final thought becomes clearer and clearer: an overwhelming sense of gratitude.
I am thankful for being exposed to a culture so incredibly rich in its offerings and so attuned to its past history. Having the opportunity to study how tradition and modernity work in real-time with real-life examples was eye-opening — I felt a sense of immediacy whenever I’d see whatever I read about in books or articles in the flesh, from Noh masks that actors still use today to meditation rituals in Buddhist temples. Accompanying this was a sense of awe, which grew stronger with every temple I entered and every piece of history that I took in.
I am also thankful for the various forms of beauty that this trip brought into my life. Rock and Zen gardens will forever remain in my mind as sites of the sublime. The vivid patterning of Japanese fabrics has inspired me to incorporate color into my own life (though this will be a very gradual process). The act of walking became especially beautiful in my eyes: with feet firmly planted and eyes upwards, I eagerly absorbed the Kyoto’s offerings, one building facade at a time. Taking it all in reminded me of why I study art history: in my eyes, devoting one’s life to pursuit of beauty is a task that will never be in vain.
I am most grateful for having learned how to value life’s moments of pause — turns out idleness can be of value at times. Pondering pristine arrangements of raked pebbles to sitting zazen had a reviving effect on me, as did hearing the punchcards at the Nishijin textile facility and milling about Teramachi and Nishiki markets. In Kyoto, I acquired knowledge by way of experience more so than through the written word. This experiential education has left an indelible mark on the way I see not only Japan and its heritage, but also the world at large and its myriad of cultures.