On a Quest in Kyoto

When my wife Kuniko and I flew to Japan four autumns ago, our primary goals were to pick up our daughter, who had been studying at a university in Tokyo for a year, and to visit Kuniko's family on the island of Shikoku.

But I arrived with one more mission, which had been entrusted to me by the erstwhile head of Geographic Expeditions, Jim Sano. When he heard that we were visiting Japan, Jim asked if we would be going to Kyoto. Kuniko's brother lives in Osaka, not far from Kyoto, and we were planning to rendezvous with him for a couple of days before continuing on together to Shikoku, so I said yes.

''Great!'' Jim said. ''There's a wonderful little shop in Kyoto that specializes in woodblock prints. It's in the covered shopping area near the river. Everyone knows it. Could you go there and look for some woodblock prints that might make good covers for the catalogue?"

Now Jim Sano is a man I hold in the very highest regard, a man I would happily slay dragons for, much less buy woodblock prints. ''Of course!'' I said.

And so a quest was born.

After four fulsome days in Tokyo exploring my daughter's favorite hang-outs, we took the characteristically clean, comfortable and efficient Shinkansen to Osaka, where we had planned to stay two nights before setting out early the following morning for Shikoku.

The next day my wife and daughter went clothes-shopping in Osaka, and I went woodblock print-hunting in Kyoto.

Jim hadn't remembered the name of the shop, so I had done some searching on the Internet. My cyber-sleuthing turned up one good candidate:  a sleek-looking woodblock print shop called Art Shop Ezoshi, which had a handsome web site and what looked to be a large inventory of both traditional and modern woodblock prints. The only disconnect was that even though it was located not far from the river in Gion, a very traditional quarter and a suitable location for a woodblock print-selling shop, it was not in a covered shopping area.

I took the train from Osaka to Kyoto station, got out and looked around. Suddenly the folly of my quest hit me. Here I was in a city of 1.5 million people — many of whom were streaming around me at that very moment — with one day to locate a specific woodblock print shop and find some suitable catalogue covers. I was the Don Quixote of woodblock print-shopping.

I found an information desk in the train station, brushed off my somewhat rusty Japanese, and asked the woman there how to get to the covered shopping area near the river.

She cocked her head a bit and a worried look shaded her eyes.

''Which river?" she said.

Ah, I thought. Which river. Here was a possibility that had not presented itself to my innocent brain.

From previous visits to Kyoto I thought I knew the area that Jim was referring to, and I remembered that there was a Starbucks very prominently situated right on the river near the shopping area.

''The one near the Starbucks,'' I said.

She looked at me with increasing worry. ''There are many Starbucks,'' she said.

''Ah, yes,'' I said. ''Um, I'm looking for a shop that sells traditional woodblock prints.''

I could tell that she wished her coffee break had come ten minutes earlier so that some other colleague could be dealing with this hapless foreigner.

''Just a minute, please,'' she said, with a slight bow.

She skipped into a nearby office where I could see her huddling with a klatsch of colleagues, each of whom took turns glancing with barely disguised astonishment in my direction.By the time she came back, I had decided to postpone the search for the covered shopping area and try Ezoshi first. ''I spoke with my colleagues,'' she began, ''but we are not sure which shopping area you are seeking.''

I unfurled print-outs of the Ezoshi web site and showed them to her. ''That's OK,'' I said. ''Thank you for trying. Could you tell me how to get to this shop?" She looked at the print-out, and relief swept like sunshine across her face.

''Oh, yes!'' she said. "Gion. Shinmonzendori. This is the old antiques area. You exit through those doors'' - she pointed behind her - ''and look for the bus number 4A. You should get off at the intersection of Shijo and Kawaramachi streets.''

Eventually I danced my way through a Busby Berkeley choreography of flowing people and buses to the 4A stop, got on the bus and asked the driver to tell me when we reached the Shijo-Kawaramachi stop. Twenty minutes later, he nodded kindly at me and I disembarked. A few minutes of walking took me to the river and then across it to an area where green willows bowed gently over glittering canals and narrow slick-stoned alleys were framed with weathered wooden shops. I passed enticing closet-sized eateries and an exquisite cobbler's shop where strips of leather were displayed like museum pieces and an elderly artist in an apron crafted shoes the old-fashioned way. I picked up his card and vowed to come back someday.

I paused at a storefront stall to buy a green tea soft ice cream, then wandered by shop after shop showcasing ancient tansu chests, ceramics, and lacquerware. Finally I came upon Ezoshi, an elegant two-floor store with a wide selection of traditional and modern woodblock prints. I was especially moved by some of the 20th-century works, which showed a delicacy and grace that I thought had disappeared at least a century before. But even though they did have some copies of the traditional works of 18th- and 19th-century masters like Hokusai and Hiroshige, I didn't find what I was looking for.

I asked the young attendant if she knew of any woodblock print shops located in a covered shopping area by the river. She cocked her head slightly. ''I'm not sure, but you could try the area called Teramachi. It's a covered shopping area just across the river. You could try there.''

So I set out for Teramachi. But I had only walked a few doorways when I spotted a foot-wide stone pathway lined by green plants winding alluringly away from the street. Near the beginning of the path was a small wooden sign with the neatly ink-brushed words ''Café Gallery.'' I was hungry and intrigued, so I followed the pathway. It wound inward about 15 feet and then turned to the left toward a sliding doorway.

As I approached, a woman in a dusky lavender kimono with her gray hair in a neat bun brushed with a quick bow by me.

I slipped into an elegant spare space with six stools set at a sleek counter. Three traditional Noh theater masks were displayed behind the counter. There was no other adornment.

An elderly woman with a kind, lined face welcomed me with a hearty ''Irasshaimase!,'' presented a one-page handwritten menu with a precise grace, as if it were a tea ceremony bowl, and asked what I would like. I ordered a coffee and a chocolate cake, then complimented her on the beautiful shop and asked how long it had been there.

''Fifteen years,'' she said. ''It was started by the woman who was leaving just as you walked in. She's on her way to Tokyo to meet with a director. She's one of the most famous masters of Noh mask painting in Japan.''

She asked what I was doing in Japan and I told here I was on a satogaeri — a going-back-to-the-birthplace visit — with my wife.

''Oh, really!'' she said. ''I have an international marriage in my family, too. My daughter is married to a Frenchman and they live in Normandy. He is 20 years older than her! They restore ancient homes. My daughter loves antiques — I think maybe that's why she loves her husband,'' she said with a wink.

"Excuse me a moment,'' she said suddenly and shuffled into another room. Minutes later she re-emerged bearing a yellowed issue of the Asia edition of Time magazine. The magazine was opened and she pressed it into my hands. ''Look at this,'' she said. It was an article about the ancient art of Noh mask making. ''That's the owner of this shop,'' she said, pointing to the well-thumbed page.

We talked about how Kyoto still nurtures old artistic traditions and how it retains a graciousness and calm that much of the rest of Japan has lost.

Then I remembered my quest. "I'm looking for a woodblock print shop in a covered shopping area near the river," I said. "Do you have any idea —?"

''Go to Teramachi,'' she said. ''It's just across the bridge. Maybe a 10-minute walk. Good luck!'' And she bowed me out the door.

As I approached Teramachi, I saw the Starbucks I had been thinking of, perched incongruously among traditonal Japanese restaurants with platforms overlooking the Kamo River, where diners on fine summer nights can sit outside, eat grilled fish and watch dusk color the sky like a kimono obi.

I entered the thronging neighborhood of covered shops and stopped at a coffeehouse. ''Do you know a woodblock print shop near here?" I asked. The twentysomething waitresses looked at each other and shook their heads. They called over the slightly older twentysomething manager. ''I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I don't know of such a shop,'' he said, with grave politeness.  

I asked at an electronics store. I asked at a shoe boutique.

Then a little Japanese lantern went on in my head and I realized I should choose the people I asked according to the nature of my question. I found a kimono shop and walked into a hushed world of glorious textures and colors and forms. The wizened proprietress was sitting at a low desk in the back, sipping green tea from a blue and white porcelain cup.

''Excuse me,'' I said. ''I'm sorry that I'm not shopping for a kimono, but I'm actually looking for a woodblock print shop. Do you know of an ukiyo-e shop in this area?"

She paused and looked astutely at me. ''Saaaahhhhhhh,'' she exhaled in that Japanese way of saying, "That's a tough one — let me think about this for a bit." She looked off into space, then back at me again. ''I think there is such a shop. Yes, of course, I'm sure it's still there. I think you mean the shop called Daishodo. They specialize in woodblock prints.''

''Ah, that's wonderful!'' I said. ''Can you tell me how to get there?"

She looked at me appraisingly again. ''Let me see.'' A hand absently brushed her cloud of white hair. ''Ah...'' She searched the air. ''OK!'' she suddenly said. ''I'll take you there.''

She abruptly stood up, walked me to the entrance of her shop, turned a neat hand-printed sign on the door to say ''Closed'' and strode out into the thoroughfare. ''This is a good excuse for me to take a little walk,'' she said with a laugh. And off we went.

She led me twisting and turning through the lively streets — sales being shouted here, jingles spilling out storefronts there, people shopping everywhere — for almost 20 minutes. As we walked, she told me about the festivals. ''Fall is the best time to be here,'' she said. ''I love the Jidai festival. They parade all the ancient clothes and cultural items. The history of the city comes to life before your eyes! You must come back. And the color of the momiji in the hills! So beautiful. Oh, every year I am as excited to see it as if it were the first time.''

She told me she had been in business for four decades. ''Kyoto's changed a lot in that time,'' she said, shaking her head. ''It's much busier and noisier now. But still there are neighborhoods where the old Kyoto survives. People still care about tradition here, and craft. Some of the finest artists in Japan still have their workshops right around here,'' and she swept one arm elegantly over the covered streets as if she were the proud curator of old Kyoto.

At the end of the next block, she said, ''I think it's right around here.'' And when we reached the end of that block, she said, ''It must be the next one.''

After a few more such blocks, just when I was beginning to feel like I had led this poor kind woman on a wild woodblock chase, suddenly she pointed excitedly. ''There it is! Daishodo!'' She pulled my arm urgently across the street. ''Is this the place you were looking for?"

Beautiful woodblock prints hung artfully in the front window and I could see that the shop was crammed floor to ceiling with delicate colorful exquisite ukiyo-e — just what I was looking for.

I thanked her as profusely as I could, bowing as low as I dared. She bowed in return and said with a crinkly smile and a twinkle in her eye, ''It was my pleasure! Enjoy your stay in old Kyoto!''

I walked into woodblock wonderland: shelf after shelf after shelf of landscapes, geishas, bird studies, city scenes, country scenes — and the travel landscapes I was looking for. Two floors of them!

After a heavenly hour of looking, I emerged with five beautiful woodblock prints.

And even better, I emerged with a renewed sense of the kindness and grace that imbue the streets and shops and citizens of Kyoto even now.

Travel quests are like that: You start out searching for one treasure, and end up finding something entirely different — and richer than you'd ever imagined — along the way.

 

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Don George, Editor

Don George is Editor in Chief of Wanderlust: Literary Journeys for the Discerning Traveler. He has been Travel Editor for the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle and Salon.com, and Global Travel Editor for Lonely Planet Publications. Don has published eight books, including Travel Writing, A Moveable Feast, The Kindness of Strangers, and Tales from Nowhere. E-mail him at don@geoex.com.

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