Neil Young - Comes a Time plays in vinyl on the turntables as I settle in to my avant-garde couch at the Stumptown on 3rd: a somewhat lesser known coffeeshop off the main thoroughfare in a nearly more urban area of downtown. They make a mean mocha. Nothing special, nothing outrageous, just a solid straight up mocha. Part of a local chain that roasts their own beans, this Stumptown is but one of many.
The first I discovered was on Belmont— the soul of Southeast waiting to be undiscovered like the once heart of Hawthorne, bought up by big spenders. I'd walked past it countless times on my way to other nooks, until one day, no destination in mind, I decided to brave a trip inside. Smaller than this one, the front of the shop has wide pane glass windows where you can watch as kids too cool for you stare out at passers by with indifference as they suck down their cigs. But in the back, separated by an awkward aisle that serves as queue and pathway both, is where the magic happens. It has an unfinished brick wall with too small windows fighting the too harsh light from too high ceilings. A paradise of abrasive surroundings that can do nothing but inspire the disjointed prose and broken couplets of would-be writers and beatniks trying to eke out a life of stifling misunderstanding.
Still my favorite of the chain, it's a bit out of the way and so I don't go there nearly enough anymore. It was one of the first spirited kissaten I'd found once the cybernetic hole in a wall, Heaven, closed down its promises of retrotechnical elegance, of 1980s underground movements of hacker-elites resisting the crumbling of society. But it was in 京都 that I found my love again.
Sunday noon I took a 新幹線 (shinkansen, bullet train) from 東京 (Tôkyô) to 京都 (Kyôto), a two hour trip covering around 500km (300mi). For those unfamiliar with Japan, the doomed megolopolis I'd left is the hyperurban commerce center of the country, whereas 京都 is the culture capital where one can still find remnants of the old traditions so romanticized in the West like geisha, traditional architecture, and countless temples and shrines. I fell in love with the place immediately.
Having grown up just outside of DC, I found the differences between 東京 and 京都 to be much like the differences between DC or New York and Portland. 京都 is a sizable city in its own right, but as it seeks to grow and develop into a larger city it refuses to let the old spirit and tradition of the people be sacrificed. It's a city with a spirit and a soul all its own. Trees and hidden parks dot the landscape, traditional ceramic-tiled Victorian-esqe homes make homey boulevards and neighborhoods. Words cannot express the enormous wonder nor gorgeous design of the place.
Designed as a "modern" city using Chinese principals, it has a relatively normal grid layout unlike the mazework of alleys that make up 東京 or the spiderwebs of streets that make 大阪 (Ôsaka). Also unlike other cities, the streets in 京都 are actually named, which makes finding your way around much easier. Though konomaigo tells me there's a movement to get the streets in other cities named too; something I'm sure tourists and mail carriers would love. The city is surrounded on the north, east, and west by mountains and a river runs north to south just to the east of the city's center. 京都 is mostly a bussing town rather than a train town like other cities. It has a subway that makes a cross through the center of the city, but most of the time busses are needed to get you where you're going. With odon in full swing, the tourism department in 京都駅 (Kyôto station) were prepared with stacks of maps for bussing to the major sites in both English and Japanese so navigation wasn't a problem.
The first couple nights I stayed in 北山YH (kitayama, lit. north mountains, youth hostel) in northwest just where the city starts fading out to farm and wild. The walk from the nearest busstop is a couple blocks through wooded city streets, and from the bathroom window of the hostel you can look out over the northern mountains. The proprietor speaks English well and is a wonderful, interesting host, though he's getting on in age and 北山YH will be closing by the time I write this. Of my hosts he was my favorite (konomaigo aside ;) He grew up in the area and liked to hang out with the hostelers and share stories on the groundfloor social room, smoking like a chimney but making it come across as an affectation of a bygone era. Out in the mountains the hostel didn't get hot water in the mornings, though there was always water for tea, and he had a little computer in the back office he used to take reservations and would let you get online for 50¥.
Lest I manage to underimpress the abundance of shrines in the city, there are three major shrines on that three-four block walk from the busstop, and on the walk from the hostel down to さらさ (sarasa) I passed no fewer than a dozen before I lost count. Ah, さらさ. This kissaten is about an hour's calm walk downhill. It's down a long alley lined with street vendors selling grilled chicken kebobs and other goods. Built in an old bathhouse, bright green tiles still line the walls as decoration— a minty medicinal green that could only look appealing through a misty fog of steaming bathwater. I knew I'd come home. The cute barristas were as edgy and self-confident as any you'd find in Portland. The tables were wooden with a single flower display that seemed to say that life goes on in this scene torn from the ruins of the bathhouse. The menus were similarly wooden, or at least the hinged covers were— one inch thick and blocky. They carried a wide selection of teas and coffee, as well as sake and even shochu and had foods ranging from typical Japanese snacks, to Western cakes, to ethnic specialties like Indonesian fried rice. The whole menu was set in a playful yet serious font and had English captions.
The Indonesian fried rice was quite good, as was the house tea shake. By now my Japanese was starting to click into place. Reading over their list of today's specials I came upon a chiffon that must be mine, but it was almost time to head back to the hostel for curfew. Braving making a fool of myself before the attractive waitress I tried my best to convey that I would like some of the chiffon, but needed to be heading back to my hostel. There was some confusion, largely because the "need to X" construction for verbs is entirely different than the one I know for nouns, and in typical 京都 dialect she sought clarification using the passive voice— something I could identify as such, but couldn't quite interpret. Other than those two points we could understand each other quite well; Ironically, since I'm supposed to be/have been learning 東京 dialect— the official dialect of Japanese. 京都 dialect just seems to match what I know much better. I eventually got my point across and discovered the loan word テイクアウト: take-out. I tried to return to さらさ twice on other nights, but they were closed for vacation after the end of odon season.
I made it back in time, hazelnut chiffon in tow. Other travelers were congregating in the main lounge, smoking, drinking tea, and having jello shooters—or something like—from 北海道 (Hokkaidô) so I sat with them awhile. There were three or more French travelers of which only two were around socializing. The proprietor and three other—friends? workers?—were there. And the last two were Japanese travelers, college students riding their motorbikes up from 福岡 (Fukuoka). They may have been a couple, or close friends, hard to tell. She was open and friendly, good with English, and gorgeous; he, reserved, speaking almost only to her in quiet Japanese, a prime example of asian attractiveness, the kind who plays the stalwart hero in many an anime.
As we went through the standard mantras of hostelers' discussions we made our way to where we were all from. The Parisian's Japanese was nonexistant and her English was mostly passable. When the cute biker said she was from 福岡, the Parisian asked where that was. "Oh it's on 九州 (Kyûshû)," I piped in. The biker was somewhat surprised, "...yes" she said with a smile. The Parisian didn't know much about Japanese geography and her English wasn't quite good enough to explain it, so we all started scrabbling around looking for pens and paper on which to draw a map. Noticing we were having no luck, but that there were plenty of cigarette cartons and other detritus on the table I began to make out a map in gross detail. "Here's 北海道," the large ash tray in the north, "here's 本州 (Honshû)", two cigarette packs in a broken backwards L beneath it. As I continued, the biker's eyes grew wider and wider still. This strange foreigner ("we're about here,") actually knew something about her country, actually cared. "This," laying down a smaller pack of Marlboro Menthols, "is 九州, and 福岡," pointing to the northwestern corner, "is over here." "Yes!" she almost jumped, surprised, unsure if at the last crucial moment I'd make some mistake, my map turning into some child's impression of Picasso. This beaming smile, this cherished grin, and my night was complete.
As the first night in 京都 wound down, the proprietor began putting out the last call before draining the baths. I went to my room to get my towel so I might wash off the day's grime and the sweat from the hour's jog back up the hill from さらさ, chiffon in hand, hoping I'd make it before they closed the doors. When my turn'd come I went to bathe, disrobing and leaving my clothes and glasses in one of the baskets in the drying area. As I entered the bath I noticed the tub was sized only for one, it was a small bath, and had someone in it, so I headed back— not for modesty's sake, but just since I was hoping for a soak and didn't want to wait around awkwardly after rinsing waiting for my turn. As I opened the door, a voice called out, "Ou, jou ken come een ef jou uant tu..."