Kyoto Karma by Ravibala Shenoy

Kyoto Karma

In six days my daughters and I had seen Japanese shopkeepers sweep the path before their shops for the tenth time. We had seen temples and gardens. We’d sampled the tea ceremony, felt no fear returning on the bus to the hotel at 10:00 pm, pointed to pictures of Bento box meals and survived without knowing a word of Japanese. I’d lost count of all the temples we’d seen. Some I remembered, like the one that had a burial ground dotted with little dolls to commemorate miscarried and aborted fetuses. Or the one on a hill at the foot of which was a lane with the most exquisite blue squiggles on pottery. Everywhere there were aesthetic delights: even the garbage in Kyoto was beautiful!

On the last day before taking the high-speed Shinkansen train to Himeji, there were two major temples I had not seen: the Ryoanji Temple, a Zen temple with the sand sculptures and a Shinto temple. The two temples were situated in different directions, but we only had time for one.

The Shinto temple had a legend attached to it. A prince or a samurai, lost and thirsty, was wandering in a forest when he came upon an old man. When the prince asked for a drink of water the old man speared the ground and a spring gushed forth. Out of gratitude, the prince later built a temple on the spot. “Naah! Who believes all this? We’ll pass.” I said. There were plenty of such legends in India, too. A leper with sores hobbling on the burning grounds of Banaras was none other than Lord Shiva himself. The myths and legends of other countries are less compelling than our own.

We walked along the shady Philosopher’s Path bordering a canal where ducks swam, then boarded a street car that would take us to the Zen temple. I found a seat by the window so I could see everything. My daughters found seats, too.

An old man got on the streetcar. He was decently dressed, not unkempt or down at heel. He stood in the aisle and looked me up and down. Then he began shouting at me. A steady barrage in Japanese directed only at me. I had never seen him before. I wasn’t sure why he was so mad at me. Perhaps I was sitting in the wrong seat, I thought, and stood up. But this gesture did not satisfy him. I looked away to avoid his gaze. I glanced at my creased trousers, I was decently dressed. But the man continued to stand in the aisle and shout at me. I was astonished. I didn’t know what he was saying, and what I had done to provoke him. With my brown skin, I could have been South Asian, Malay, or Hispanic. I couldn’t believe that he had taken issue with the color of my skin. At the time, I had lived in the US for 23 years and had never once encountered such in-your-face racism.

I looked at the other passengers baffled. Was the man crazy? I asked silently. In Japan the mentally ill were often well-dressed and walking the streets. But the other passengers avoided eye contact. To me the greater wonder was that the passengers acted as if this was not happening. Why didn’t anyone tell me why the man was so mad? No one took him to task. Each passenger was wrapped in their individual bubble and pretended this encounter was not happening. More relentless even than a buzz saw, the man did not stop until he alighted from the streetcar twenty minutes later. A Japanese matron nodded in my direction and said in halting English, “Now. You. May. Sit. Down.” I lifted my chin in defiance and chose not to do so.

What karma! I thought, as I stumbled out of the streetcar with my daughters when my stop arrived. Only karma could explain the less than 2 in 7 billion chance of encountering a stranger who would shout at me for no reason in a streetcar in Kyoto.

The driver winked. “Bye bye!” he said. I don’t know if it was in sympathy or if he was glad to be rid of me.

In the Zen temple of the sand sculptures, on the ride back, on the Shinkansen to Himeji, in Tokyo at the Kamakura shrine, and after landing in Seattle — which looks like a continuation of the Japanese landscape — all I could think of was the bizarre encounter.

Isn’t it astonishing how, despite all the good memories of the beauty and cleanliness of Kyoto, the kind strangers who stopped in the middle of the street to point out directions and walked with us to our destination, it is the one bad memory that seeps into everything — like a drop of poison in a glass of milk?

It would never have happened in India, I told myself. There the passengers would have scolded the old man, consoled the foreigner. It would never have happened in the Chicago. Were the other passengers on the Kyoto streetcar simply too embarrassed to say anything?

Five years later, I brought up the incident with a famous Indian-American writer living in Japan.

”The Japanese do not like people who look like you and me,” he said.

I was not convinced. If only I could understand the accusations in the streetcar, there would have been closure.

Secretly I think: maybe he was a heavenly figure from the Japanese temple — the one I did not visit — who climbed on a streetcar in the guise of an old man. If Lord Shiva can frequent cremation grounds in Banaras disguised as a leper, then surely a Japanese temple deity could board a streetcar to show his displeasure!

Personally, this explanation is the most satisfying. It provides a mythic dimension, and myth is kinder and gentler. I could be using myth to sugarcoat the obvious — that the old man was racist and xenophobic.

I guess that was his problem, not mine.


Kyoto Karma


Ravi Shenoy’s work has appeared in Jellyfish Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Sugar Mule, Chicago Tribune, The Copperfield Review, Cooper House ReviewThe Aerogram, Best Asian Speculative Fiction. She has twice won awards for her short stories in India Currents.  She was a past book reviewer for Library Journal and former book review editor for Jaggery.  She lives in Naperville, Illinois.


Also by Ravibala: The Accident


(Next: Wolf Girl by Tess Allard)

(Previous: Morty by Gary Moshimer)

Feel like submitting? Check out our submission guidelines

A special issue exclusively for Writers of Colour – submission guidelines here


Image (modified): Paul Vlaar CC3.0