It was night in Kyoto.
In a grove on a mountain, in July 1995, as I was preparing to leave Japan, I received one of the great gifts of my life.
It began with the Kyoto Connection, an international arts gathering. Over several months, I’d taken the stage at the Connection in various guises: as part of the folk-pop trio The Tango Explorers (we were named after a train); as 1/2 of an even folkier duo, Star of the Sea; and as a soloist.
I loved being onstage at the Connection. But even more than that, I loved witnessing the amazingly eclectic acts that appeared there. In any given month, there could be jugglers, Shinto dancers, multilingual story tellers, classical musicians both Eastern and Western, clowns, poets, and more, artists from around the world who happened to be in town, happened to find out about Kyoto Connection, and came along and happened in person.
The most astonishing act I recall was the fellow who had dedicated himself, for reasons unclear, to the gargantuan task of committing the entirety of Moby Dick, Hermann Melville’s epic old novel, to memory, and then reciting it onstage. Excruciatingly, if he made a mistake, he would rewind himself and begin again. It was performance art on a level that is perhaps best described as unfathomable.
Whatever our foibles, however well or ill-prepared we all were, presiding over us all with a gentle grace was Ken Rodgers, managing editor of the glorious Kyoto Journal. Ken is one of those rare souls who, I expect, were I to see him even now, would look exactly the same – a man who wears his love for life, spirituality and the foibles of human artistry like a pilgrim’s cloak, in which he walks timelessly in wonder.
Or maybe it was the night and Kyoto.
Whatever the case, when Ken invited me to Shinchihaya, I felt elevated beyond expectation.
I don’t remember the 2-hour train ride to Kyoto, nor the subway up to the north side. I vaguely recall getting off a bus, in the gentlest of rain, and meeting other poetic pilgrims bound for Shinchihaya.
With these strangers who felt like family, I stepped into the dark bamboo grove. We walked up a hill in the dark, summer-scented Kyoto night. We could have been anywhere, anytime, climbing the stairs, treading the damp earthen path up into graceful darkness. Already swooning with the magic of it, I lost my breath entirely when we stepped round a corner and beheld, cocooned in bamboo on the top of this hill we’d climbed, a traditional wooden house, lit only by candles flickering and gleaming in its many tiny windows.
I don’t remember what poems I offered. It doesn’t matter, they belong to that night, as do the particulars of the words and wisdom we all shared. We sat on cushions in the candlelight, drinking tea in ancient light, and we talked of those things poets and seekers have always discussed, down through long ages.
Long may poets and seekers do so, whoever and wherever we are. Let there always be a humble haven, somewhere in a green grove in the dark, where we hold in our hands and give voice to the mysteries of the small light in the living dark.
Bamboo image by Makoto Namatame on the mighty pixabay.com