“Clouds are like cotton candy,” Obasan says. “I could reach up and grab a piece.” At this, she pretends to pluck a cloud out of the wide summer sky and drop it into her mouth.
We’re in the beach chairs in the backyard, afternoon heat washing over us. After a pause, Obasan continues, “My grandfather, he was a fisherman. And he used the clouds to tell what kind of fish he would catch that day.”
I point up at a grey mass that’s about to block the sun and ask, “What does that cloud say?”
Obasan says, “That one’s too big. Too dark. But sometimes, he would look up at a cloud, and it would be a big sardine day…”
* * *
Kyoto was a city for looking up. Up at the autumn leaves that jeweled the tree branches in ruby, carnelian, and gold as they bent over the watery arteries of the Gion District. Up at the burgundy, amber, and green glass that glowed in the roof of Nishiki Market. Up at the bamboo huddled in a thick clump in Arashiyama Forest, up at the Christmas tree glistening with ornaments in Kyoto Station, and up at the buildings hedging Karasuma Dori like shiny sentinels.
But no one told me this about Kyoto, and so I did not look up while I was there. My Kyoto stopped at ground level, rarely rising above it, and certainly not up enough to encompass the clouds. When I wandered through the Shinto shrine Yasaka-jinja, I imagined my great-grandfather, sculpting figures out of stone, perhaps thinking about the tumor that couldn’t be cut from his wife’s body, and I wondered if his hands had carved any of the statues where my eyes now roved and green moss crept. When I reached out to take a green tea ice cream cone (one of many) in Nishiki Market, I imagined my grandmother indulging herself after a hectic day of work at the insurance company where she became a secretary, or after a long night of dressmaking or ballroom dancing classes, or maybe after an eerie day in which Kyoto kept showing her the face of her mother, stolen from her when she was thirteen.
Lost in the Kyoto that was in front of me, I did not imagine my great-great-grandfather finding his day’s fate in the sky. It never crossed my mind that Kyoto’s past, my grandmother’s past, did not run beneath the modern city like something buried by it, nor was it solely displayed in the earth and the tangible. It was above and around and within, and if I had ventured a look up, Kyoto would have enveloped me, shrouded me in its whispers.
The closest I came to lifting my gaze was in Fushimi Inari Taisha, a Shinto shrine. Here were hundreds of toriis—red-orange frames marking entrances—lined up one after another and curving up the mountain Inari like a tunnel. On a morning where autumn’s cool breath lifted the city out of sleep, I glimpsed an occasional slice of blue walking through the toriis, but it wasn’t the sky that I was looking for. It was the calming sight of one orange beam after another, each vibrant with the memory of a Kyoto past. They’d borne witness to my grandmother’s early life, a time mysterious to me and only unveiled via snippets of memory, like puzzle pieces yet to be connected.
And so I went through the city in a tunnel, and because of that I did not look up to see it as a whole. On the day that a flat sheaf of leaden clouds rolled in and enclosed Kyoto in a snow globe world, I only tasted the rain on the heavy air before sheltering in Nishiki Market. Another day, a partially cloudy sky turned the sun on and off like a switch, but I only had eyes for the golden walls of the Buddhist temple Kinkaku-ji, at first blinding under harsh rays, then dazzling under muted light. One morning, a spotless cerulean ceiling evaded me, and instead of looking up, I felt the burning sun still cling to a season past, resisting the clutches of autumn. Sometimes, pieces from up floated down, withered leaves occupying the sidewalk at my feet with the season’s warm tones. Trying not to step on their beautiful backs, I wondered, not for the last time, if autumn had been like this when my grandmother lived in Kyoto, and her mother, and her mother’s mother. With leaves like fire, memories smoldering in our minds.
* * *
A heavy Singer sewing machine sits on Obasan’s kitchen table. Flowery fabric cut into rectangles and white elastic strips lie nearby. On the kitchen countertops, a bundle of freshly cut dill wafts over the room, piles of dishes wait to return to their cabinets, and various ingredients (eggs, butter, sugar,) cram the spaces between. The table and counters are so laden that pots and pans dangle from the ceiling over the sink.
I don’t remember what the kitchen looked like on the day I brought her the photos. It’d probably been tidier, cleared counters and housed items, because my grandfather had been alive then, and he’d been the one who kept the kitchen in order. What I do remember is Obasan looking at my photos and saying, “You’re a city mouse, like me.”
In them, London’s Big Ben had presided over the River Thames like a golden guard, the tiny streets of Pláka, Athens had been adorned with tiny tables and tiny chairs, and the wavy façade of Gaudí’s Casa Batlló had shimmered in Barcelona. A few of the places I went to first. But Obasan hadn’t minded my detour. She’d paused and nodded before shuffling each image to the back of the pile and bringing another forward.
If I am a city mouse, it’s not clear which city is mine. But I know hers. I wonder if the kitchen I see today—a comforting chaos from table to counter to ceiling—is what her kitchen looked like before, before she met my grandfather and moved from her city in Japan to his home in suburban Philadelphia. Perhaps there’d always been a sewing machine on her kitchen table, dishes out of cabinets, back in Kyoto.
* * *
I visited a statue just west of Gojo Bridge, traversing the mirror-like Kamo River. The statue was on an island at a crosswalk, lined with two lanes on each side. Until then, I’d sought Kyoto’s shadows—pausing beneath trees, browsing in Nishiki Market, wandering with my camera up narrow alleyways—but there was nowhere to duck in the middle of Gojo Dori. The hot sun filled the broad street as water occupies a bowl, and cars whooshed past.
Before me stood two warriors cast in stone. The larger was Saitō Musashibō Benkei, hand raised in defense against Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a small figure that the artist had elevated by placing atop a pillar. During the twelfth century, the warriors are said to have contested in what’s now Kyoto, with petite Yoshitsune claiming the victory and Benkei becoming his servant. Benkei did not resent Yoshitsune but respected him, and the two men were constant companions until their deaths. In stone, their cheeks, bellies, and muscles curved in rotund contours. Their surfaces were smooth and shiny. Beneath the inescapable beat of the sun and stranded in the middle of a street screaming with cars, Benkei and Yoshitsune seemed exposed. I tried to imagine them at night, when the duel happened, strained to picture them at the mouth of a Heian period bridge, but it was difficult to slip into the reverie in this vibrant, new Kyoto. My Kyoto.
Leaving, I headed north on Kawaramachi Dori to the eastern entrance of Nishiki Market. Under its ceiling of vibrant windows and banners, stalls doled out green tea ice cream or baby octopus on sticks, shops displayed delicate teaware and handmade decor, and tables were overburdened with fresh fish. The many travelers of Nishiki’s world halted and drew out wallets and collected bags and went forth, all in movements so smooth that they appeared orchestrated. I felt arms brush mine in the crowded, narrow route through the market. Unknown languages drummed in my ears, cameras clicked on tourists gripping octopus sticks, and the scent of fish floated over the hall.
In the market, there was a Snoopy shop. “Snoopy Chaya” it was called, and at the entrance, there was a giant Snoopy stuffed animal next to a white banner with the word “Snoopy” emblazoned across in black letters. Behind, rows of low bookshelves were packed in the compact shop, swathed in Snoopy teas, Snoopy chocolates, Snoopy stickers, Snoopy handbags, Snoopy bookmarkers, Snoopy chopsticks, Snoopy teacups, and Snoopy figures lying atop Mt. Fuji as though the volcano was his doghouse. One night, I approached their food counter and ordered rice balls drenched in sweet soy sauce, Snoopy’s head etched into one. In the storied hall of Nishiki, the shop was anomalous, but nevertheless visitors streamed over its floors as though riding on a conveyor belt all the hours the market was open. Nishiki Market has been in Kyoto for about four hundred years; Snoopy joined the American comic strip scene in 1950. Yet somehow, amid the octopus sticks and ceramics and ice cream, Snoopy Chaya was at home.
I loved Nishiki Market and Snoopy Chaya. I loved the statue of Benkei and Yoshitsune and the sleek, modern landscape they oversaw. I loved being a city mouse, and I loved KyotoA city is a ground for dueling, humanity’s past and present contesting each other to make one the other’s servant.
* * *
“My father was a sculptor,” Obasan often says.
In the cemetery, eyeing the stone sphere atop the headstone, she doesn’t say it. But I hear it anyway. Her father had been a sculptor in Kyoto, and, in the sixties, when he’d stayed for a time with his daughter and her family outside of Philadelphia, he’d worked at a local monument maker’s. Five decades later, that monument maker would build a headstone for my grandfather, topping it with a hoarded sphere that had been carved by Obasan’s father.
I pour water out of a gallon jug, and when it hits the smooth, round surface, the water splits into tiny rivers webbing down the rest of the tall headstone. Obasan scrubs away accumulated pollen and dirt with a brush. There are flowers planted at the base, and we make the grave feel new under the warm blue sky.
* * *
Kyoto is a city known for its springtime cherry blossoms. My grandmother was one of the Shōwa period ladies clad in a kimono strolling up Tetsugaku no Michi, the Philosopher’s Path, while the sakura dazzled for their brief lives in pink clouds. In autumn, it’s also customary to view the bright orange and red leaves, a practice called momijigari. Spring blossoms and autumn leaves, twin stars that glimmer and perish, captivate audiences with their fleeting majesty. When they detach from their binding, it seems a wretched loss. Shining colors fade. Rain, feet, and time trample the fallen stardust into the detritus of seasons past, like silt at the bottom of a river, like sheets of dead sea creatures molded into mountains. Layer after layer, wrapping up the earth, and maybe I could feel some of them beneath my feet when I was in Kyoto: a stone pathway through a shrine and sidewalks slick with rain and crackling autumn leaves and somewhere, the ghost of my grandmother’s light footprints. But are the world’s layers made of the ink or the stamps? Was I in Kyoto looking for the leaves or for the tracks through them?
Making my way north from Gojo Bridge to Nishiki Market, I wished my grandmother was with me, guiding me. The only thing she’d told me to do was visit the statue of Benkei and Yoshitsune, which she claimed had been carved by her father. But later, writing this and trying to verify the artist through a tourism site, I found someone else’s name. And so putting memories into words becomes another form of loss. In trying to preserve what we know, we forfeit the beloved, fragile myth.
* * *
The beach chairs in our backyard are engraving a pattern into my thighs. Late afternoon is slipping into evening, but the days are warm and long, and the light will last for some hours. Overhead, white billows still slowly scoot by, sometimes offering a brief spell of shade. Their trail stretches from horizon to horizon, as though the clouds are circling the earth and coming back to us.
“When we go to the shrine, we bow twice,” gently leaning forward in her chair two times. “Then we clap twice”—her hands at her sternum, she lightly smacks them together in repetition—“and then bow once more.” This time, her seated bow is deeper and longer.
“I remember that,” I say. “They had directions outside Meiji for visitors, so I knew what to do. And there was a little ladle, for washing.”
Obasan’s eyes brighten at the memory. Rubbing her hands together, she says, “Yes, you wash your hands first. Then you wash your mouth.” At this, Obasan and I mime splashing our faces with water. The motion is familiar, and I can almost feel the shrine’s cold water on my mouth as I look at my grandmother and smile, but it lasts only a moment.
This essay was inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, translated by William Weaver (Harcourt, 1974).
Mellisa Pascale is from southeastern Pennsylvania. Her narrative nonfiction has appeared in Paperbark, Elsewhere Journal, City Creatures Blog, and other publications. She holds an M.A. in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University and is studying for her M.Phil. in Medieval Language and Literature at Trinity College Dublin.
Photos by author.