The ryokan where I stayed isn’t far from the train station in Kyoto. You pass a cool bar marked by strips of fogged-over plastic in the doorway and arrive at this neat, quiet inn that locks up at midnight. The rooms have tatami mat floors and cotton yukata robes with blue and white stripes. I had taken the train from Nara. It was early March, and while I’d flown in too soon to see the cherry blossoms, I’d arrived by chance during the Omizutori festival. It’s taken place every year since 752, as irrepressible as buds exploding from the trees.
People gathered on the slope leading up to the hall at Todai-ji temple. The warm glow of the balcony intensified as the sky deepened.
A monk readied a big pine torch topped with straw, turning it back and forth in his hand like a lacrosse stick. Once it was lit, he ran across the balcony spinning it against the wooden ledge, trailing a mane of flames and spraying red sparks into the crowd. Voices rose in a wave and quieted, the temple smoked, and the next monk took his place. A fire again raced through the torch, the monks roared, and the sparks rained down, reaching us as soft, gentle ash. More than once a burning cluster of straw blew out over the crowd and stayed lit as it wafted down lower, lower. People oohed and screamed, and the fire went dark before landing. The mood turned giddy before the monks took their next run.
By the end, the air was spinning with cinder. Flecks of ash covered my corduroy jacket. An older woman in delicate turquoise nodded to me. “Lucky powder,” she said as she passed.
Breakfast was served at the ryokan each morning, a collection of bowls holding miso soup, seared fish with a crisp skin over rice, and root vegetables. Accompanying the food was a cup of tea, aromatic and welcoming as a hearth. I asked the young woman pouring it what it was. Iribancha, she said, and brought me the long brown paper bag full of curled black leaves, with Japanese letters down the front. Smoked tea. Sinking into the steamy cup was like smoking in drink form. Tasting the end of winter. A grown-up reprieve, like coffee and a cigarette.
She told me its maker, Ippodo, had a shop in the city and one in the train station.
The ryokan was a unique place. Each night it hosted a social hour with cocktails, teaching the guests calligraphy and Japanese words. It was led by young people who liked to practice their English and meet travelers from around the world (and who would later slip a note on flowered rice paper under my door). A warm French couple—the woman with pale copper hair and the man with gray—tried on kimonos and took photos. A woman from Oregon mentioned to me that she had once traveled alone herself. She’d done it for a few days once without her husband, she said, but it felt as if it had never happened.
The next morning I sat down again to crisp fish, rice, and smoked tea. A different couple sat next to me in their blue-and-white striped robes. It felt quite intimate. Their conversation brought to mind a packed New York subway car that once had me standing so close to two people, in the middle of their low voices, it felt like I was in bed with them. The couple on the train had been talking about drinking on a weeknight, and the man said he worked better the next day “with a little burn.”
In Japan I did what lone travelers have done since time immemorial: follow the smoke. Sizzling skewers at the bar. A chat with the bartender. A tether.
A boy at the temple on a cliff waved the incense toward himself, patting it into his clothes and hair.
It burned at every shrine, and was once an art form as revered as the tea ceremony. Though the ritual faded over centuries, maybe it could be felt elsewhere. In the fire-blackened wood boards protecting a house, in the beauty found in decay, in a taste for smoke on the palate.
Vendors in the park grilling oysters to a savory char and topping upside-down portobello mushrooms with cheese, then blowtorching them.
My last day in Kyoto I took a train trip to the Kurama hot spring. You walk uphill along a winding road in a town by the woods, where water flows down a groove along the sidewalk before you hear the stream. Volcanic is how I think of Japan. Smoldering underneath the calm.
There are separate entrances and pools for men and women, coin lockers to place your clothes, and outdoor showers. A petite, naked mother and her girls rinsed off. I did, too, then stepped into the steamy rock pool. It was partly shaded overhead, looking out to the hilltop trees. The water grew hotter and the air denser as you stepped closer to the middle. A bit of luck: the French woman from the other night was there, soaking against the edge. We reclined and drifted up and down in the water, like buoys, relieved to talk in the steam rising into cool air.
I remained after her, soaking just long enough to catch the train back. From there I walked fast to the ryokan for my suitcase, raced several blocks back to the station, picked up a bag of iribancha at the shop and made it to the bullet train in a sweat. Tokyo was next.
Karen Hudes is the editor of Rockefeller Center's blog, Front & Center, and a longtime writer and editor for Zagat. She also created the game Menu Mash-Up, published by Chronicle Books.