Savouring Kyoto slowly

Straits Times journalist Janice Tay reveals indelible insights into Japanese society in her part-journal, part-travel guide Kyoto Unhurried


Straits Times Press, paperback/216 pages/$25.90 with GST from leading bookstores or on loan from the National Library Board (NLB) under the call number English 915.2186404 TAY

Last week, three earthquakes rocked Tokyo.

Its denizens went about life with the intensity of purpose, as usual. They included 82-year-old Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, who went ahead with her daily television show, Tetsuko's Room, as she has every weekday since Feb 2, 1976.

Kuroyanagi, better known to readers as Totto-chan, the little girl at the window - from her best- selling 1981 memoir of the same name - has clinched two Guinness World Records for her commitment to what is Japan's first talkshow.

From tasting squid to quizzing celebrities to commemorating Japan's wildest festivals, she has sustained the interest of the Japanese in their own country.

  • Toast two birthdays on July 27

  • The Big Read Meet turns three on Wednesday, the same day that author and geopolitical strategist Parag Khanna celebrates his 39th birthday.

    Join Khanna and senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai to celebrate these milestones from 6.30pm at The Possibility Room, Level 5, NLB headquarters at 100 Victoria Street. They will also be toasting Singapore's inaugural National Reading Day on July 30.

    Besides a birthday cake, Khanna will offer much food for thought as he speaks on his book, Connectography.

    Sign up for the celebration at any NLB e-Kiosk or go to, look for The Big Read Meet.

Singaporean journalist turned Kyotoite Janice Tay will likely pique their interest further with her immersive observations of their ancient capital, Kyoto, in her new book, which comprises 36 of her 124 columns in The Straits Times (ST), which ran from 2007 to 2013.

Tay, who has been with ST for more than a decade, started out as a crime beat reporter, then went on to copy-editing and sub-editing. The alumna of Oxford University still sub-edits full time for ST today, from Kyoto.

With only a glancing grasp of Japanese, she relocated there in 2006 and, about a year later, began writing her fortnightly column, Letter From Kyoto. Through that, readers glimpsed facets of her new home, the seat of Buddhist learning in Japan for 1,000 years.

Today, it is also the country's headquarters of tea, Noh theatre and the Japanese art of flower arrangement.

Tay's part-journal, part-travel guide unfurls like a bolt of the finest kimono cloth, revealing a wondrous tableaux of old plum trees, shocks of cherry blossom and maple, rows of tea hedges that look like giant green sausages and statues that come alive and tease world-worn monks.

Here she is on savouring Kyoto: "Food is tasted as time: bamboo shoots - simmered spring; watermelon - summer waiting to be sliced; persimmons - autumn sugar dissolving on the tongue; crab - the white flesh of winter."

Far more valuable, however, are her indelible insights into the underpinnings of Japanese society and culture.

Conversing with one whose mother tongue is Japanese, she writes, is like entering a traditional Japanese house whose doors are "slid back and forth to create rooms of different sizes... the other person suddenly switches to another level of formality; the doors swish across and a wall appears before us."

Nature, she has also learnt, is to be interpreted, not just observed. For example, the lingering bitterness of the lowly, abundant Japanese horse chestnut, now considered a delicacy, is an indictment of hypocrisy.

"Time wilts everything," she concludes, after learning to look past the beauty of a flower to its will to live. In feel, though not in form, Tay's musings remind one of Japanese schoolteacher-translator Machi Tawara, who excels in tanka, a short, traditional Japanese verse rubric.

Here is Tawara in her poem Wake-Up Call from her 1987 poetry collection Salad Anniversary, which has sold more than seven million copies to date: "Beautiful -/In the park, close to twilight/the gait of a pregnant woman."

Unlike Tawara, however, Tay's recollections are stripped of melancholia and full of muscular musings that can be terrifying.

Here she is on winter in Kyoto: "What was once bone marrow is now ice; the Kyoto cold steals inside and lodges there."

Read Kyoto Unhurried and you might quake with longing for things past that, in Kyoto, are still in the present.


A dancer in a kimono with cherry blossom motifs performing at Daigo-ji, a temple complex south of Kyoto that has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.
A dancer in a kimono with cherry blossom motifs performing at Daigo-ji, a temple complex south of Kyoto that has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. PHOTO: JANICE TAY

1 How might you best get on with those who do not like being confronted?

2 How might the rich find common ground with the poor?

3 In what ways do the four seasons nourish one's soul?

4 What are the benefits of old age?

5 What is the essence of Zen philosophy?

Just a minute


• Singaporean journalist Janice Tay has elevated the economy of language to an art form with her meditative memoir on Kyoto, her home since 2006. For example, here she is on the yearly end-of-summer festival in Kyoto called Daimonji Gozan Okuribi, or the Five Mountains Send-Off Fire, when more than 480 fires are lit in a tinder-dry forest at night: "A tiny light is pricking the dark fabric of the mountain, scratching a hole for fire to pour through."•

Standing amid towering Japanese cedars, she muses: "The sun shafts in between them, the snow so much the brighter when it falls where the light does. White explodes in a shaft, showering ice like sparks from an anvil - a gust of wind, perhaps, or an angel huffing on its hands." • She gives the reader the benefit of two rounded perspectives - of one who lives in Kyoto, but also of one who is also not of that ancient city, but of a faster, flaw-intolerant and relatively greedier place. • She wears her deep learning lightly, particularly in the section on Japanese history. For example, she alludes to how the lingering bitterness of tochi, the abundant and once-lowly Japanese horse chestnut that is now a delicacy, is a silent indictment of hypocrisy, which is perhaps unavoidable in a society that considers confrontation anathema.


• Between 2007 and 2013, Tay wrote 124 columns under the heading Letter From Kyoto for The Straits Times. Thirty-six of these make up this book. The puzzle is how these have been categorised - two of the book's 12 sections, Stay and Wear - have a single entry each. Why bother with sectioning if there is apparently not enough chosen material for that particular section? The two redundant sections could just as easily have been tucked under the categories Activities and Shop.


• This book does not seem to know what it is. Is it a memoir, travelogue or backpacker's guide? It seems a little of all of that and I appreciate that it is possible, even profitable, to be many books rolled into one. But Tay's elegiac essays deserve a more considered, less commercial, treatment, a case of more Give Me The World by Leila Hadley than Time Out travel guide.

Fact File: One visit was all it took

Journalist Janice Tay first visited Kyoto in 2005.

Over three days or so there, the Singaporean was so taken by her surroundings that, in 2006, she quit her job as a sub-editor at The Straits Times (ST) and moved there.

Asked what seized her so from the outset, she says: "It was the machiya, or traditional townhouses of Kyoto. It's hard to put into words the atmosphere that rows of these wooden houses create."

These ancient abodes of Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, have wooden lattice fronts and courtyard gardens and are, perhaps, a reflection of what Tay says is the instinct of Kyotoites to find beauty in "what is faded, reticent and half-hidden". She, too, likes "fading into the background".

That, she adds, is "a philosophy at odds with the increasing pressure to let it all hang out, go big and get your face out there".

Alas, she adds, the Japanese are pulling down the city's machiya - at the rate of 1.5 per cent every year, some reckon - to build modern homes. "Some residents and foreign buyers are making an effort to save the machiya. If they disappear, Kyoto won't be Kyoto anymore," she notes.

Once she was ensconced in accommodation there, she began learning Japanese and captures in Kyoto Unhurried the oft-frustrating experience of doing so.

But, the alumna of Oxford University and Hwa Chong Junior College says that mastering Japanese was not such a "slog" as her earlier efforts to learn Chinese and French. She says of her Japanese lessons: "It helps to be in an environment where whatever effort you put into language learning is almost immediately rewarded with a chance to communicate."

Today, the graduate in English Language and Literature lives near Kyoto University. Within walking distance of her home are four temples, one of which is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

"There are also three confectioneries that have been in business for more than a century, mountains, cherry trees and a river where hawks fly," she says.

That is a world away from her childhood in Singapore's East Coast, whose banyan trees she still dreams about, but which was bereft of Japanese influences beyond "the psychedelic English on stationery or lunchboxes with Japanese motifs".

Asked what she enjoys most, and least, about living in Kyoto, she says: "I try to live where there is no 'most' or 'least'; the sky looks wider there."

Does she not baulk at Japan's steep prices, even for supermarket sundries? She says that she copes by not converting anything to Singapore dollars. "Being bad at mathematics has come in useful," she quips.

The diminutive Tay will not divulge her age and asks that her photograph not be published.

She says of the Japanese: "I don't know if they privately thought that I was mad, but all seemed pleased at the implicit compliment paid to their country and culture."

She says she cannot recall anything particularly challenging about settling in Kyoto, although she says it took some explaining to Japanese taxmen what she was doing in Kyoto on a journalist's visa. "When I filed income taxes for the first time," she recalls, "I had to explain my unique situation to tax official after tax official - in Japanese."

In mid-2008, she rejoined ST and is now a Kyoto-based sub-editor of the newspaper. She also writes occasional travel pieces for the paper.

Tay, who is not married and has no children, muses: "Perhaps what was most difficult were the 4am thoughts - the ones you have when you lie in bed at 4am and think, 'What am I doing with my life?'"

In her case, plenty, as it turned out. In April, she released Kyoto Unhurried, a compilation of her Letter From Kyoto columns which ran in ST from 2007 to 2013. At press time, she is putting the finishing touches to her first novel.

Asked about the plot, she says: "A man wakes up on a beach at night with no memories. The woman kneeling beside him says she's eaten them. It's a tale of remembrance and love in the time of the samurai."

She is hoping to write another novel once she puts the first to bed.

Tay, who returns to Singapore once a year on average, adds that she considers Kyoto Unhurried as "a daughter". "Now that she's all grown up and published, she's gone out into the world. I hope she will have many adventures."

What of her adventures in Japanese culture and society?

After listing her favourite Japanese things as its history, its tea ceremony and the kimono, an elaborately embroidered traditional robe for women, she says Kyoto's craftsmen inspire her.

"They labour to get every detail right, knowing that even if they did, they would in all likelihood remain nameless to the world."

There are lots in her adopted city to keep anyone anchored to it. "It's a compact city, and deep; you can find tempting shops, quirky cafes and historical sites - all on foot."

As for food, she recommends the Ootoya restaurant near the city's Sanjo-Kawaramachi junction for its cheap and extensive selection of eats. Beef-eaters can head to Isshin, a kaiseki restaurant in the Gion area, for a slap-up nosh of the meat.

She writes quite a bit about Japan's cherry blossoms and its traditional tipple, sake. Asked which of the two inspires her more, she says: "Both make me smile - in the case of sake, quite uncontrollably."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 24, 2016, with the headline 'Savouring Kyoto slowly'. Print Edition | Subscribe