The Japanese are a fiercely proud people. So proud and nationalistic, in fact, that they are intensely afraid of contamination. In the wake of swine flu, almost everyone sported white surgeon's masks outdoors and airports screened the body temperature of every passenger. Even when I tapped a bus driver for directions, he shrank three feet away from me and brushed off my touch like I was a mosquito.
"Guess he thought you were Chinese," my mother laughed. Ah, the age-old animosity between Japan and China. Indeed, the Japanese obsession with cleanliness, evidenced by hand sanitizers, soaps, and disinfectants everywhere, clashed with the overcrowded, pungent, and rather filthy streets of cities like Beijing. Despite population and industrialization, how clean a city is, is a matter of culture.
Of course, I had forgotten to study the language before our departure. The young, educated Japanese conveniently ignored my requests for directions, pretending they did not understand even though they laughed when I told my mother a joke (in English). Perhaps it was the embarrassment of speaking in an Anglican tongue, or maybe it was a sign of disrespect towards their heritage. Nonetheless, Mother to the rescue. She was surprisingly fluent, navigating us around town in local buses, and elbowing me because I kept saying "Comsomida." Later, I realized I had gone around Kyoto saying "thank you" in Korean.
Everything in Japan was small, exquisite, and especially potent. Think sake, or tiny rice cakes crusted with powdered sugar, concealing a delectable center of honeydew or red bean or strawberry. Outside the renowned Golden Pavilion Kinka-kuji, there was a small collection of confections and we feasted on sugary sweets flavored with green tea or ginger. The teas were extraordinary: one whiff and they awakened the senses.
We also encountered geisha along the wooden walkways of Gion. They have become a rare breed, ever more cherished because of their scarcity. More elusive than shadows, one could only glimpse at them heading off to the theatre or to entertain a private party, that flash of white paint and sumptuous kimono disappearing around the next corner. They shun the attentions of the public, and the ever curious tourist.
I remember one particular geisha who brushed past us closely in a narrow street. The sky was dark, as it was evening and red lanterns were lit outside the taverns. When she saw us, her hand flew up protectively, as if to ward off evil spirits. But it was her expression that haunted me, distracted and somehow melancholy.
I thought about her story, how she began and if she has the freedom to leave. Forget fairytales and Arthur Golden-white-Jewish-man-writing-a-Japanese-woman's-memoir. Elders believed that beauty was a woman's bane; it brought greater misfortune than luck. I wondered if she had not been beautiful, how her story would have been written. Would she be happier, freer, valued for what lies beyond her flawless skin?
With beauty, it becomes ever so much harder to hold onto the spirit. You become intoxicated by the world.