It is New Year’s Eve in Kyoto and to celebrate we have finally given up all pretensions of trying to blend into, or even absorb, the Japanese culture: We have ordered in pizzas and burgers from room service, and are watching Matt Damon in “Martian.” God bless America! We have been in Japan for nearly two weeks now, and though we love it, we are all exhausted, at that point in the trip where we are no longer even bothering to pretend we’re going to get up early to go to the gym (ha! We’ve been once), and are wearing dirty clothes and getting a touch lax about hygiene (I won’t name names but it is not, I repeat NOT, me).
We have wound down our trip here in Kyoto so that my husband, who lived here twenty seven years ago, could take us around and show us all his old haunts, but as it turns out, much to his surprise, and certainly ours, he recognizes almost nothing. “I feel like an amnesia victim,” he says, as he leads us up the charming, if jam-packed, Chawan-zaka, (Teapot Lane), to the iconically Kyotoan Kiyomizu-dera temple not with the help of his memory, but rather, the most recent edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook. “I don’t even think I’ve ever been here before,” he says, a fact which seems difficult to imagine given the beauty of both the temple and its environs. But alas this amnesia-like phenomenon will occur again and again as my husband leads us from astonishingly beautiful temple to astonishingly beautiful shrine, pagoda, or garden. And at a certain point I will even begin to wonder if he ever really lived here at all.
After a morning spent at a tiny Zen rock garden consisting of exactly fifteeen rocks which my husband swears he remembers visiting, and frequently, to meditate, he decides we should have okonomiyaki, or cabbage pancakes cooked on a griddle, for lunch. Sure twenty seven years ago a woman who owned such a restaurant sponsored him for his visa, but as that restaurant has long since closed and he cannot remember the name of any other such restaurant that he frequented — “This was before Facebook,” he reminds me — we walk into the first okonomiyaki-ya that we see.
The place is a greasy spoon and though me, my husband and our 13-year old are more than satisfied with our lunch, our two younger children do not like theirs and we begin to talk, a bad habit, I know, about what else they might like to eat. Perhaps the restaurant has soba? Did I see something on the menu about tofu? “No,” my husband suddenly says, putting an end to all the indulgence. “I haven’t eaten okonomiyaki in twenty seven years, and I may not be back in Japan for another 27 years, or ever. This may be the last okonomiyaki I’ll ever have and I’d like to enjoy it.” At fifty years old, I know, he is merely stating something that is actuarially true, if morbid. But it is something so true and so morbid that for a minute I can barely catch my breath.
“But maybe we’ll come back soon,” I say, trying at once to reassure him, our kids, who have fallen silent, and not least of all, myself. “We’ll rent an apartment one summer when the kids are in camp. Or just move here for the year and put them in an American school.” He can open a Zen investment fund and I can write a book about Japan and become a foreign correspondent. Tomorrow is a new year, a completely new slate. And though it’s unlikely we’ll ever do any of it, isn’t it nice to dream?