You’ve heard of “Paris Syndrome?” Often exhibited by the Japanese, it is a condition of anxiety bordering on hysteria upon realizing they have fallen prey to an extreme case of false advertising. Far from the romantic image portrayed in “An American in Paris” and glamorous Chanel advertisements, the grittier realities of a loud, grimy, and often rude Paris leave the tourist feeling betrayed, confused, and reeling from an enormous case of culture shock.
We’ve all felt this to one degree or another, haven’t we? My first keen disappointment in travel was a summer trip to Cape Cod many years ago. Living in Massachusetts, all one hears is: “Going down the Cape this weekend?” “Gotta leave early and beat the bridge traffic.” “Awesome trip to the Cape!” Even though our family had a sweet little cottage on Plum Island off the North Shore, one always had the suspicion it was the redheaded stepchild of vacation spots. The really great place to be was the Cape. Had to be, right? Everybody said so.
And so we ventured “down the Cape” giddy with expectations. Much like the Japanese tourist assaulted by Parisian smells in the Metro station, our bubble was burst immediately. Our rented cottage was fine, but in a location where even a simple trip to get milk resulted in 45 minutes trapped in summer traffic. The beaches teemed with people. The restaurants overflowed onto the outside decks. The stores were full of ticky-tacky tourist merchandise. I wanted to go home.
That was years ago and I’ve become cynical enough now to expect that the best-selling novel I simply must read will almost certainly be hurled onto the metaphorical kindling pile because it is the Worst Piece of Dreck Ever Written.
The restaurant which simply must be visited for the next special occasion dinner served stale bread, cold coffee and warm champagne. Paris Syndrome abounds.
But hope springs eternal even in my lentil of a heart which was beating pitty-pat as our plane touched down in Japan. At last.
Far from a comprehensive travel guide, I give you only the impressions gained from four days in Kyoto, an ancient city which served as Japan’s capital for 1000 years. Weeks after returning home, I’ve recovered from jet lag but not from the sensory overload of a culture so different from my own. Simply put, Japan is a nation of attention to the smallest detail which I know now appeals to every fiber of my being.
Photographers urge us to look up. I would tell you to do the opposite in Japan.
Not that looking up could possibly prove a disappointment:
The Japanese are genius at combining beauty and utility as shown in this array of artful fences. Why not make them as beautiful as the garden they contain? Why not make everything in our lives as pleasing to the senses as we can?
But enough of flooring and fences. What about food? If a fence is given special care, you can imagine how important a meal is. As the waiter placed an assortment of salts each with a specific purpose on our table, I knew I was in for a treat. This one for seafood, perhaps? This one for your beef? Oh yes, please. Food is celebrated here, meticulously prepared and served. The experience is the very definition of dining. No server named Jared loomed over our table mid-meal to inquire if “you guys” are still “working” on that meal. The horror!
It was William Morris who said famously “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” I can’t help wondering if he ever visited Japan because that ideal is deeply ingrained in every aspect of the Japanese design aesthetic.
To my Western eye, accustomed to piles of books and other lovely clutter, it felt spare and a bit cold at first. But gradually I sank into the “less is more” aesthetic and began to appreciate the tiny details of the few things in the room. A sumptuous fabric. A delicately glazed pot. An exquisitely trained bonsai. The smell of sandalwood.
The only place I found clutter (and a heavenly clutter it was!) was in a second-hand bookstore. I am here to say that no matter where you are in the world, it seems used bookstores all smell the same!
And the books themselves! Oh my. Buttery soft paper and exquisite illustrations proved absolutely irresistible to me. Let me show you just two of the books now safely ensconced in Virginia. These are serialized romance novels, each perfect little books on their own, but to my amazement I saw that their covers join to form one image! I couldn’t communicate well enough with the shop owner to find out if a third or fourth book in the series would continue the size of the image, but let’s just assume they would.
There is a condition I dub Kyoto Syndrome. One in which the reality far exceeds the expectation. One where you find yourself transported into a culture so different from your own that your outlook is forever changed. I may never return to this enchanted part of the world, but I’ll carry a piece of it with me forever.
Did you know that Kyoto was on the target list for the atomic bomb along with Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Secretary of War Henry S. Stimson had it removed in no small part because he had spent his honeymoon there. It seems an enduring case of Kyoto Syndrome proved miraculous indeed for the residents of this ancient city.
Oh, just one more thing. In the intervening years, I’ve learned the Cape does have its abundant charms. It’s important not to let Paris Syndrome close your mind to second chances.
Thanks for reading,