The Kyoto Beat

Seated at the rough wooden slab of counter, polished smooth by years of love and use, we watch the chef’s hands and knife dance gracefully along the long bundle of negi green onions, his eyes intently scanning the crowded room beyond, soaking in every detail, the state of every dish and half-empty glass. Shouting guidance for refills to his staff on the floor, he turns to us with a grin, and hands across three perfectly charcoal-grilled yellow onions, so sweet that the miso and salt/sansho dips accompanying seem almost unnecesary. Earlier that afternoon, while guiding us among the food stalls of the Nishiki market, the chef had selected a fine nihonshu, regaling us with lore about where the rice had been produced, and the special characteristics of that particular brewery and bottle. With it now cradled in a lacquer box filled with hot water on the counter in front of us, we refill glasses – his as well – and tuck in as he tells stories of a misspent youth in Kyushu, all the while attentively reading the needs of the guests around us.

With slow, practiced brush strokes, the maiko applies thick white make-up in elegant lines to the nape of her neck, as we watch in rapt attention from below on the sitting room floor of her mother’s okiya home. Shoulders bare, she turns to face us, laughing as she gracefully answers our endlessly curious questions about life growing up in this rarefied world. Her mother and grandmother before her were geisha, and her days are spent studying traditional dance, tea, music, flowers and more with Kyoto’s masters, while evenings are spent entertaining guests in the restaurants and teahouses of Gion and Miyagawa-cho. It’s a demanding schedule, but also an intensive education into the traditional arts and culture here that few young women of twenty could ever dream of. An hour passes by like a moment, and soon the doorbell rings – the otokoshi-san has arrived to dress her in many layers of ornate kimono and obi, before she comes out to join us for dinner this evening.

Four bright emerald green leaves frame the swollen bud of tsubaki camellia, nestled between the steady thumb and forefinger of the 84-year-old tea master. His right hand softly strips one middle leaf, and brings the stem to rest against the fresh-cut bamboo mouth of the vase, leaves delicately reaching out towards the mid-afternoon sun streaming across from the low paper window to the right of the tokonoma alcove. Hands pause for three slow deep breaths of consideration, then release in completion. And now it’s our turn.

Stepping gingerly along the neatly-swept dark granite stones, deep-set in a snow-dusted sea of moss, we come to a small grotto where steam rises from a low stone basin diagonally adorned with green bamboo ladle. Dipping a ladleful to purify hands and mouth, we are only mildly surprised to find the water pleasantly warm to the touch. A few steps beyond, the tiny square door of the 200-year old temple teahouse welcomes us on hands and knees into a dim 4 ½ tatami mat space. The latticed gray and earthtone patterns of the room slowly come into focus, punctuated only by the soft red glow of embers in the sunken hearth, and the brighter red of a single half-opened camellia bud catching the last rays of the afternoon sun. As we take our seats on three low cushions arranged around the hearth, the shoji door slides softly open, and our host bows low, her purple kimono and bright smile filling the room with warmth.

Kyoto’s magic is an elusive one, appearing sometimes to lie in moments of transient beauty glimpsed, but not so easily held or summed. With time comes the realization that this town’s magic is not so much one of aesthetic alchemy, but rather lies in Kyoto’s people, in the masters of the myriad arts so deeply alive here.

For over 20 years, Bodhi Fishman has been working closely with author, conservationist and Asian arts expert Alex Kerr to share the heart and spirit of Japan’s masters of the traditional arts with visitors here. For information about arranging private hands-on programming with these masters, contact Bodhi at bodhifish[at], or Nemo Glassman at nemoglassman[at]






Bodhi Fishmanは20年以上に渡り、作家・自然保護論者・アジアン・アートの専門家である Alex Kerr氏に師事しながら、日本の伝統芸術の達人たちの心と魂を分かち合い、ここでお客様をお迎えして参りました。達人との個別プログラムをご希望の方、詳細は下記へお尋ねください。

Bodhi Fishman: bodhifish[at]
Nemo Glassman: nemoglassman[at]

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