Kyoto: My Bloodlines
10 May 2020
Kyoto has always been a magical city for me.
When I was little we would go over as a family every two years or so to visit my Japanese relatives. The announcement from my parents, and the following anticipation of going over to Japan was a huge source of excitement for my brother and I.
The eleven hours to fly over would drag on for us kids who had no perception of time. We played with the Qantas kids' packs we received and craned our necks to watch the movie projected on the one screen at the front of the cabin.
After landing at Kansai International Airport, there was a whole other world awaiting us. We rode the airport monorail to the next building with Japanese announcements overhead, every surface clean and shiny. I would look up in wonder at the high domed ceiling of the terminal with white framework and coloured pipes crisscrossing it. It looked like the sails of a magnificent ship.
My ojīchan and oji would be patiently waiting for us on the ground level. They would be armed with snacks that my obāchan had packed: handmade onigiri, mandarins and tiny bottles of Yakult.
The MK Shuttle was parked up outside at the curb, waiting for us. The driver in his crisp white shirt, driver's hat and white gloves would load our luggage in the back while we piled into the seats. Pristine white lace covered the seats and headrests. It was the last two hour leg of the journey to drive from port city Osaka to inland Kyoto.
Kyoto is now known to the world as the cultural capital of Japan, with over two thousand shrines and temples within its city, but it also has the proud history of being Japan's imperial capital city for over a thousand years in the Heian era. The city streets were laid out in a grid format to imitate the ancient Chinese capital of Chang’an, and they’re still like this today. There’s even an old song that Kyoto children sing to remember what order the street names are lined up: maru, take, ebisu, ni, oshi, oike...
We pulled up to Hotel Harvest on Karasuma, which was our usual place of stay in Kyoto. My ojīchan always handled our stay there, and when I was older I found out that he and obāchan paid for all of our expenses.
The automatic glass doors slid open into the orange and brown lobby and I would be met with the most distinctive smell - a smell that I still remember to this day. Sort of musty, sort of smoky, but by no means an unpleasant scent. Our rooms were always spacious, and more often than not our window looked out over the intersection which had McDonald's on one corner and the Kyoto Imperial Palace gardens gosho on the other.
After we were settled in, we would leave the hotel, turn right down Karasuma for a few blocks until we reached Ebisugawa. The old family house resided on the corner next to a tiny yakitori shop with its glowing red lanterns hanging outside. We would open the ancient, rickety wooden sliding door with glee and be met by my smiling obāchan, her eyes crinkling at the sight of us with her apron on and back bent over.
The front room and office was cramped and had a stone floor with the desk and chair in one corner, with overflowing files and tottering piles of square tins of dye against the wall. The other half of the room was raised and laid with tatami mats, but laden with flat cardboard boxes used for packing products.
The stone floor led straight through the room to a narrow passage flanked by wooden screens with frosted glass panels to the right, which opened up into the raised small living room. Dusky pink carpet with a low wooden table sat in the middle, which also functioned as a kotatsu in the winter, and a small TV screen was placed in the corner. The big butsudan alter was next to it, where we would light a stick of incense, ring the bell, put our hands together and bow our heads to family members who had already passed. Black and white portraits of my great grandfather and great grandmother hung overhead.
The traditional Japanese dinner would be brought out from the tiny kitchen in the back and we would all squeeze around the low table, sitting on the floor and chanting itadakimasu before digging in. After dinner my oji would put on videos of Doraemon or Detective Conan that he had previously taped off the TV for us, and we would happily watch them while sipping bottles of Qoo and Calpis.
My obāchan's pet budgies would flutter in from the front room where their cage was, and land on a wooden stick that was set up for them in the corner above the TV. Sometimes she would catch one in her hands for me to pat, and I would watch it with delight as it cocked its head and blinked at me curiously with its beady black eyes.
The front room also had dark wooden steps along one wall, which intrigued me to no end because they were the smallest and steepest steps that I'd ever come across. You had to climb up them using your hands and feet, and go down the same way backwards. I only went up there a few times, where it led to my oji's room, but it was always so dark up there that I didn't venture far.
These are the memories of my childhood in Kyoto, my second home. My family doesn't live in that old house anymore, and my ojīchan and obāchan have long since passed away. I remember the house with the fondness of a child’s eye, but in reality it was an ancient and draughty house that was far too small for three adults and a family business.
I was blessed to know my Japanese grandparents and I am so grateful for my parents who made the effort to get us over there to see them. I will cherish these memories forever. They may not be there anymore, but the Kyoto blood will always run through my veins, like the grid lines of the city's streets.
ojīchan - grandad
obāchan - grandma
oji - uncle
onigiri - riceball
Yakult - sweet, probiotic milk drink
Heian era - 794AD - 1185AD, classical Japanese era known for its peace and prosperity
Karasuma - major south-north street in Kyoto
gosho - Kyoto Imperial Palace, former ruling palace of the Emperor
Ebisugawa - small east-west street in Kyoto
yakitori - grilled chicken
tatami - traditional bamboo mat
kotatsu - low table with a heater under it and a thick blanket attached to sit under in winter
butsudan - Buddhist altar in the home to pay respects to Buddha and deceased family members
itadakimasu - Japanese phrase said before eating a meal
Qoo - fruit juice brand
Calpis - cultured milk drink popular in Japan since 1919