The first few minutes leaving the station Kyoto looked much like any other Japanese city but soon the atmosphere started to change. There were many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines visible as they drove down the street even without the crisp clear sunshine of this day these streets would have been beautiful. Occasionally they would see rickshaws, two wheeled carts that could seat two people, being driven by men, usually young, peddling like a bicycle.

Gianni asked,

“Have you ever ridden in one of those?”

Kumiko was laughing,

“I never have; we had other means of transportation when I grew up here, mostly our feet! I think most of the people who ride the rickshaw are tourists.”

The hills surrounding Kyoto were very beautiful and it was clear they were headed west toward them. Gianni could see that Kumiko was starting to smile and looking a little self-conscious.

“Is there something happening I’m not aware of?”

Now Kumiko was nervously laughing and pointing ahead at the road.

“Gianni san, I think you are about to see the house where I grew up very soon.”

As they ascended the curving road they came upon a grand entry to an unbelievably big, beautiful and elegant house built and decorated in pure Japanese style, Gianni thought it looked like some of the palaces he had visited before in other Japanese cities. The car stopped and Kumiko relaxed into her completely expressionless demeanor. Gianni knew that look, it was the look that Kumiko was talking about on the train, and she was concentrated on not showing any feelings. They looked at the house together not saying a word when they both saw through the fence an old women walking across the garden with a bouquet of flowers she had just picked.

Kumiko was quiet, almost frozen, afraid of her own next move. Suddenly she exploded from the car, ran to the huge wooden gate, pushed some buttons on the post at the side and the gate began to slide open. She ran to her grandmother and at about a meter away from her she stopped and made a very deep bow. The old woman did not react then without any facial expression at all made several shallow rapid bows. Now the two generations stood looking at each and suddenly Oba chan broke into a big smile, reached out with her hands, pulled Kumiko to her and they gave each other what looked to Gianni like a very western big hug.

Gianni could see they were both happy and engaged in a very animated conversation. Suddenly conversation stopped for a moment and both Kumiko and Oba chan san turned and looked in his direction, Kumiko motioned for him to come. Gianni knew a moment of truth was about to arrive. He had been studying his Japanese but he knew it was not going serve him very well at this moment. His Japanese teacher was a gifted natural pedagogue who advised him to learn a workable casual mode of Japanese before he started with the polite. He knew this was a moment for polite. In a quick decision he could see the options were to speak English or try and use whatever Japanese he could; she would forgive him for all the inevitable mistakes.

When he reached them Kumiko introduced them and he bowed and endeavored to tell her how happy he was to meet her and Kumiko had told him many things about her. She broke out in a contagious laughter and motioned for them to follow her into the house.

Their conversation was rapid and Gianni understood nearly nothing, sometimes one or two words were comprehensible but essentially he understood nothing. However, he was enjoying himself immensely; Kumiko was overtly happy, it was obvious Oba san seemed very pleased and Kumiko’s history, which until now seemed to be a classified secret, was slowly and beautifully opening. As he watched them talk, and wondered what they were saying, he began to wonder what the rest of this incredible day would have in store.

Suddenly Kumiko and Oba san walked to doorway where a hand painted curtain hung, parted the three separated panels, and disappeared into what Gianni was sure was the kitchen. Very quickly they returned with tea and sweet bean cakes, which Gianni had learned to enjoy a few months before when he first started his new job. They drank the tea and ate the bean cakes and Gianni relaxed and enjoyed seeing these two very special women talking together.

Soon they got up and Gianni knew the time to leave had arrived. Gianni said as best he could,

“Good bye, I hope we meet again soon”

Oba san started laughing again and said,

“Gianni san, I would be very pleased if you would call me Oba san, we are friends now”

Gianni was very touched and said,

“Thank you Oba san, I hope we will meet again soon”

Oba san said please wait and left the room for a couple of minutes. When she came back she had something in her hand,

“Gianni san, I like you very much, I would like you to have this”

Gianni took one look at it and was deeply moved. It was a beautiful netsuke, the small figure of a Geisha playing a koto beautifully carved in ivory. He knew a little about netsukes, he even had a small collection of them. When Gianni identified what it was and indicated he recognized it’s quality, Oba san was very pleased. So was Gianni; this was a magical moment in this magical day.

Kumiko and Oba san were saying goodbye, Gianni bowed, said sayonara and Oba san took his hand just a second and gave it a firm squeeze. Kumiko was very quiet and they got in the car and drove away. They were both quiet, and then Gianni said,

“She’s a wonderful woman”.

Soon the car made another stop in front of a large two-sided wooden gate that opened in the middle, there was not much to see, whatever was inside was blocked from view by a high stonewall.

Kumiko took a deep breath and said,

“This is my school I was talking about, if we get out and look through the crack in the gate we can see inside.”

Through the crack Gianni could see most of the building; it was an very nice building with a beautiful garden surrounding it and in the garden were many hand made children’s playthings, monkey bars, slides, trampoline, swings and many other things, it was a children’s dream playground.

Gianni had seen other beautiful schools in his life but he knew that in Kumiko’s eyes this was the best and most beautiful school in the world.

“Part of my heart is still behind this gate, I would come here a 8:00 in the morning and we would learn and play all day until 16:00. I learned English in this place and math, reading in Japanese and English, art, dance, and music; I especially liked music. We had a little orchestra and I played recorder, it was so much fun. Our teacher would teach us about western classical music and twice a year she would take us to special children’s concerts that were given by an orchestra from Osaka, I will never forget those concerts; we heard Beethoven, Ravel, Verdi, we heard all the great composers and we even heard the Dvorak Symphony from the New World”

“Now I understand why you play it so beautifully”

“I love music but I’m not at all sure it is a part of my professional future, but music will always be a part of my life.”

Gianni was very happy with this conversation, there were only a few missing pieces and he felt sure they would appear soon.

“Imagine it’s ten years from now; what do you see yourself doing?”

Oh, I don’t know, the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to be was a geisha and that was when I was seven.”

They laughed.

I learned languages in the Swiss school and continued them in University so I suppose I’ll do something where I’ll use languages.”

“Wait a minute! You went to University! Where, What did you study?”

Kumiko was laughing now and it was clear she really didn’t want to continue this conversation now.

“You are an inpatient man Grosso Sensei! You will find these things out very soon. I’ll just tell you now that after I finished the Swiss school I enrolled in the University of Zurich and stayed there until I got my master’s degree”

Gianni wasn’t surprised, Kumiko clearly was a very educated woman and Gianni was wondering what it must be like for a highly educated, independently wealthy, beautiful and able woman like Kumiko to choose a direction for the future.

Kumiko took Gianni’s hand and said,

“Let’s get back in the car”

The car headed into the center of Kyoto and turned a corner to a much narrower street and after a few hundred meters came to a stop in front of what seemed to be an entry way into a garden.

Kumiko suddenly sat up very straight and whispered,

“Kamei san, nani yatano wa watashi no otosan!”

She seemed almost flustered for a moment then quickly recovered.

“I didn’t hear what you said”

“This is Hiiragi-ya, it’s the most beautiful and prestigious Ryokan in Japan; Kamei san has entered a new dimension!”

Continue to Section 9: Hiiragi-ya

Copyright 2005. Design by Rose Schweikhart