The Konnichiwa Kid
Some boys are mad for soccer or skateboards. But writer Dorothy Kalins's son, Lincoln, has always been a sushi-rolling, Pokémon-watching kind of kid. At 13, he asked for Japanese language lessons. At 14, he spent two weeks at Japan camp in Minnesota. And at 15, he finally got to go to the country he'd always loved from afar.
In Kyoto, our timing continued to be lucky. We arrived on the grounds of the Imperial Palace just as the cherry blossoms burst into bloom—pink and red and white, locals joyously photographing them with their cell phones. (Like everyone else in Japan, we had been tracking the flowering at gojapan.about.com/cs/cherryblossoms.) (photo) In this you-should-have-been-here-yesterday world, we also happened to be in town during the one-day-a-month food and antiques market at Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. We scored old kimonos for $20 each, and for less than that we adopted a brass mascot we named the Fish God.
Just as we had in Tokyo, Roger and I craved stillness the way Lincoln craved stimulation, so we yo-yoed between the two. We wandered the old streets of the Gion neighborhood, searching for pottery in ancient shops, only to be dragged to Teramachi-dori to find the latest Boa CD. We longed for a proper tea ceremony lasting hours; Lincoln preferred his tea cold, in a bottle, from a vending machine. Sometimes we just had to leave him behind playing Mario Kart on his Nintendo DS while we went off to Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine (the thousands of vermilion gates undoubtedly played a role in inspiring Christo's installation in New York's Central Park) (photo). The three of us agreed on spectacular cones of green-tea soft-serve ice cream; Nishiki, the covered food-market street where Linc photographed turnip pickles and dried fish (photo); and a magical arm-in-arm walk through the otherworldly moss garden at Saiho-ji Temple, which looked, he proclaimed, "very Miyazaki." (photo)
The most insightful book I read before the trip was Alex Kerr's Lost Japan, about Japanese cultural traditions. It was Kerr who founded Iori, a company that has restored eight machiya—wooden, two-story, former artisan's shops—and rents them weekly as town houses. Our best move was to rent a machiya. The houses, which vary in size (accommodating from two to 14 people), also vary wildly in price, depending on the season. We averaged about $110 per person. (photo)
Our former teahouse seemed unadorned at first. Slowly, we noticed the details. We counted a dozen woods, ranging from the pale-blond cypress of the soaking tub to the rough-hewn dark-cedar of the beams. Windows have sliding shoji, their surfaces patterned by divided grids and bamboo blinds. Soft futons float on sheer, woven tatami. The low beams threatened our foreheads, and, as I reminded Linc, "They teach humility—you're forced to bow."
The best amenity was the support staff. Bodhi Fishman, Iori's director, has the depth of a scholar and the grace of a born host, pointing us to the best knife maker (Aritsugu) and to a convenience store for cheap breakfast food, turning us on to small neighborhood restaurants (at chef Takashi Tsubaki's Negiya Heikichi, we learned the meaning of oishii, or "delicious"), and setting up a visit to a kimono-making studio (photo), Tomihiro Dyeing, where Lincoln was allowed to paint his own swath of fabric. Bodhi even showed us how to manipulate the machiya's washing machines.