Six hours after leaving Tokyo and taking the shinkansen through Honshu, I finally arrive in Kyoto. From the main station, the local train meanders north to pick up various commuters and schoolchildren, before dropping me off at my mildly suburban destination. I step past colourful posters warning children of the dangers of using selfie-sticks and exit Uzumasa station. First things first, I make a hasty dash into FamilyMart to replenish my recently exhausted box of Peace cigarettes. However, I have the feeling that my preferred smokes are perhaps too obvious an icon. In a tired attempt to alter my fate, I choose a pack of American Spirit Yellow instead and stand outside, among this low-lying middle-class neighbourhood, as I smoke and ponder my next move.
When you’re grounded in the soporific shackles of suburbia, it’s easy enough to believe that you’re cultivating the sort of persona that aches with mysterious intrigue. Of course, the reality is that you’re just staring at salarymen on their way back home, anticipating the cold malt of a freshly-opened Yebisu. With this in mind, I give up on my posturing and walk through the winding residential streets towards the apartment where my tatami room awaits. Sedentary travel induces a surprising volume of fatigue. I rest my well-worn suitcase, have a lazy shower and cheat a bit by using a social app to arrange a sort of half-chance/half-I’ve-got-nothing-to-do encounter with an American traveller somewhere in downtown Kyoto.
I Feel Kyo Good
I enter the Kyoto metro with low expectations and disembark at the city hall. As I walk past a lively group of late adolescent B-boys, the boundaries of weirdness seem to shift ever so slightly and I get a taste of encroaching fulfilment. Indeed, as I approach the agreed meeting place, my American friend is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps in seeking out such a contrived encounter, I’ve been dealt a much less certain hand? The chosen venue is in typical urban Japanese style. There’s a restaurant beneath that doesn’t seem to match up with the kanji I’m looking for, so I follow the metal staircase up to a more anonymous looking joint. Process of elimination dictates that this is the destined bar, yet it looks like it’s been shut for months. A sign in the window seems like it might confirm this, if only I could decipher the sprawling alien characters. I sense that if I can somehow access this disused space, I might just end up traversing endless corridors that guide me towards a ghostly parallel reality. But as soon as that fleeting thought crosses my mind, I receive a text message and realise that something less spectacular has occured. I’m simply on the wrong street.
Dinner is as average as the accompanying conversation, but – like any good Murakami protagonist – I’m in the market for some whisky. So we march onwards to a discrete pearl on the other side of the Kamo-gawa river: Feel Kyo Good. In late December, Feel Kyo Good is a barren cave of a bar. We spy shelves stacked with Japanese scotch and are immediately greeted by our host. TJ resembles the kind of waistcoated-and-bowtied barman that you might spy in an anime film. Immediately, my mediocre feelings towards my companion change. I toy with the idea that she might be a special kind of therapist, the kind that can hop into my unconscious and manipulate my dream world.
However, TJ has other ideas. The man talks at length about his experiences living in Belgium and the US. All the while he offers us traditional bar snacks and sound local advice, in what we learn is trademark Japanese hospitality. That hospitality soon extends to another area: matchmaking. In spite of our protests that we are accompanying each other out of platonic convenience, TJ fixes on a plan to take us to a love hotel. He starts out by describing the necessity of love hotels in Japan – close families and small households don’t afford much privacy for romantic intimacy – before espousing the delights of these rentable sex rooms. There’s vintage furniture! There’s sexy karaoke! There’s even complementary lube in case the mood dries up! At each turn, our bespectacled brother suggets that he will drive us to Kyoto’s finest rabu hoteru, until he is more or less insisting on it. But somehow, this is not the carnal coincidence I was looking for. At the same time, I have the feeling that this second-rate Colonel Sanders could do the trick. And so with fantasies of Hegelian fellatio penetrating my mind, I opt for a lift back home with TJ, hoping that things might take an unknown turn.
A sharp surprise
I wake up in my tatami room without any memorable Henri Bergson quotes and feel deeply disappointed. I rack my brain for those Murakami tropes – which, admittedly, I’ve been rather lacklustre at ticking off – and settle on escaping my indisputable urban ennui with a trip to the Arashiyama mountain on the outskirts of Kyoto. I set my GPS, leave the house and am swiftly led down a literal garden path, complete with Shiba Inu puppy in kennel. Funnily enough, this garden path leads me to a bridgeless river surrounded by….gardens. As a white face in suburban Japan, I don’t fancy my chances creeping through private property. Instead, I settle on returning down my original route and explaining my mild predicament to any disconcerted homeowners.
Stupidly, I hadn’t settled for the carnivorous youngster guarding his master’s livelihood. By now, our friendly neighbourhood Shiba is squeeking in rage at the intruder on his patch. Luckily, he’s on a leash, but can still move a metre or so around his wooden den. Angry growls permeate the peaceful midday air. I’m wary that these canine growls could soon metamorphose into accusatory human shouts. With a hop, skip and a jump, I do my best to dart around the snarling pup…
A cute Shiba dog
He barks and bares his sharp teeth
The fabric is torn