You can’t call Kyoto a pink city, even in spring. Yes, the once dead trees are now in bloom and yes, the streets are imbued with a new hue. The branches are all gnarled and the flowers are nearly too fragile. They will blow away and die. That’s the beauty of it. Spring doesn’t really begin until the wind picks up.
I had to take a taxi several nights ago. Stepping into the cab with some reluctance, I realized that the driver would want to talk, which was fine, so long as it wasn’t a conversation he wanted. I told him where to go and he asked me where I’m from. I asked about the weather. He said the winds would come. Then, he asked me if I speak Japanese. I can understand, but I have difficulty being understood.
I didn’t have to say much after that. The cabby went on at great length about the wind. He wanted me to know that, although he was old, he wasn’t one to complain about the cold, or his health. You see the words for ‘sick’ and ‘wind’ in Japanese are homophones, they sound the same. This can be confusing but it makes perfect sense if you regard sickness as being winded.
After paying the driver and leaving the cab, the bag I had blew out of my hand. I saw coins in the brake light, leaves everywhere. When that man said that the wind would pick up he meant it. It has been windy for weeks now.
I ate dinner with a man named James. We were expected to get along quite well. He was an exchange student like myself once. James stayed, made his life here. But I’ll be leaving soon perhaps never to return. I don’t have very much in common with James. He said he was from Illinois and that the specials were fish and steak. I ordered steak and said I was born in Illinois —Bloomington.
“There’s nothing there.”
Steak, when was the last time I saw it? You can’t get good beef in Japan. I had a steak once in the port city of Kobe. The restaurant was on a boat. Beef from a boat seems strange to me, about like seafood fresh from a truck in the mid-west.
“Iced Tea, can you get that here?”
“No,” said James “but we can make them make it.”
James explained to the waiter, in perfect Japanese that I wanted a bastardized American version of Japan’s favorite drink, with ice. I pretended not to understand the little joke, pretended to smile, pretended to like James. He’s been in Japan so long; his English is blunt. All of his manners are Japanese now. So we speak Japanese.
“Have you seen the Zen paintings. They are very nice. Are they not?”
“They are very nice.”
“The temple’s tigers and the portraits are…” something I can’t express in Japanese. An explanation in English (which is hard to come by) was posted on a sign by one of the Zen portraits. It said:
“In order to appreciate these paintings, we must first find our place in them” But they’re portraits, not mirrors! It’s hard for a foreigner to find one’s self in there. If clothes make the man, what are these men made of? If a face is a name, what’s in the name? What’s in the face? Even the eyes aren’t like mine.
“Much can be done with wet hair” During my winded compliant about paintings, James just nodded, or grunted, or said yes. Japanese people do this when they follow what you say, or are accepting it without question. I think it’s strange to receive such feedback, in English. But it is perhaps stranger to regard grunts and nods as language. They are something more useful than language.
Later, during a discussion of The great Language Barrier James said, “Your face, it says nothing. You know that, right?”
I said to him in Japanese “It’s only because I don’t like you.”
“Amazing,” He said, “what you find yourself saying in another language. People stare at things while they wear sunglasses. It’s like that I guess.”
James is probably right. No face can say anything in comparison to the Zen paintings.
The Zen paintings are almost always monochromatic black. I had never seen a painting in black and white before, except for photocopies in art class, which seemed ‘wrong’ somehow. Zen paintings are made with India ink and water, not paint. You’d be afraid to touch the paintings lest the figures wash away like a reflection in water. Some of the paintings look like ghosts in smoke. Some are bold and black, hard and powerful. The tiger catches my eyes; he is all of these things.
I met a man once, a national treasure, who could paint the most exquisite portraits in less than a minute. The figure was always the same but the pose was always different. He showed me his art because that’s his job. The information that’s been passed on to him is a national park. I was a tourist. This kind of conversation feels good to me. These people aren’t people that I know. I’ll never see them again. We’re talking about nebulous things such as the weather and Zen paintings. I like that, because it lets me forget for a moment that I’ll be going home soon. By the time you read this, I’ll be there. So in the meantime I have to concentrate on the changeable aspects of the world around me, the faces I meet.