My first overseas trip, at the age of 19, was to Tokyo, accompanying my Japanese boyfriend while he sought treatment for cancer. I spent mornings at intensive language classes, afternoons sitting on the end of his bed at the National Cancer Centre, and evenings teaching English or getting drunk in Roppongi bars. I lived with his relatives, watched sumo, made close friendships, and tried to keep my head above water. Five months later I was accorded the place of wife at his funeral.
Two years on, after finished a degree majoring in Japanese, I returned as a scholarship student at a Japanese university. It was another year of life-changing experiences, living with locals, studying and partying with gaijin, and maintaining a long-distance love affair with the man I’d later marry.
I have so many intense memories from that year. Dancing all night at a wild Brazilian-Japanese Carnival party and emerging into a snow-covered city at dawn. Taking advantage of free student tickets to immerse myself in the cultural life of Tokyo, from 4-hour bunraku puppet sagas to a Chagall exhibition and the Swedish National Ballet. Being verbally ripped to shreds, in Japanese, after inadvertently offending my home-stay mother. (My Japanese friends assured me this was a sign of her affection for me, and that the horrible feeling of failing to meet crushing social expectations was a normal part of Japanese life).
And then… I went back to Melbourne to start my post-university working life. Moved to Singapore. Got married and had a baby. Moved back to Melbourne and had another baby. Renovated a house. Got a couple of postgraduate degrees, a couple of jobs. Saw my kids through to high school. Visited family in Australia, Singapore and Malaysia, made a couple of trips to Europe. And somehow never made it back to Japan.
A few months ago my mother raised the idea of going to Japan on a research trip. Before I knew it I had booked to meet her in Kyoto.
As I flew into Narita airport last Saturday, it struck me that I had been away for 21 years, and that there was a possibility I might collapse into an emotional heap of latent grief, memories and exhaustion.
Instead, from the moment I emerged from the plane, heard the announcements in Japanese, saw green tea billboards, smelled indescribably Japanese airport smells, I’ve felt ecstatic. I’ve rediscovered an old love that I don’t want to leave behind again.
I’ve had a packed six days in Kyoto. Experiencing the annual bonfire Noh festival, the mossy gardens of the Silver Pavilion, folk craft treasures, masterpieces of modern art. Following a chain of beads underground through pitch darkness at Kiyomizu Temple. Travelling into the mountains to the stunning Miho Museum. Buying an 1896 woodblock print, needles from a 400-year-old company, shibori from an old silk kimono, manga and trading cards from the noisiest shop I’ve ever entered. Ceramics from an old second-hand dealer and from a young potter. A gorgeous leather bag. An alabaster egg. Eating organic soba, takeaway lotus root salad, homemade orange cake on the Philosopher’s Walk, green-tea Kit Kats, ‘Kyoto style’ French fries with truffle salt.
I’m heading back to Tokyo tomorrow and to Australia the day after. This time, it won’t be 21 years before I’m back again.
We have been incredibly lucky with our accommodation, staying in a quiet and beautiful ryokan (traditional inn) at the forested edge of the eastern mountains. The city is a short walk away across the stone bridges and stepping stones of Maruyama Park.