In times of stress…get thee to Kyoto

Opinions - October 2nd, 1998
Henry Scott Stokes

by Henry Scott-Stokes

One has to go down to Kyoto. On a recent visit— invited by the Kyoto Shimbun— I took the opportunity to wander in the back streets between the ANA Hotel and the Kyoto Hotel. It is an area inhabited by trades­people with small businesses, run by families. Wooden houses with tiled roofs abound. Do, if you have the chance, take a couple of hours off to loiter in those envi­rons, to pick up omiyage – or simply to do nothing.

On that last visit, I stumbled onto a shop called Ibarakiya, roughly 200 yards from the Kyoto Hotel, west. They make kamaboko, a concoction of fish juices and flesh, all reduced to a composition with a tender, sponge-like character.

If you want to do someone proud, if there’s an aus­picious occasion looming… you can lash out ¥2,000 for a tai-shaped (tai are sea bream) kamaboko fish, complete with a little straw bed or basket, gift-wrapped. I bought three of these on that last visit for people in Tokyo (the telephone number is (075) 241-0126).

Ignorant fellow that I am, I had never heard of Ibarakiya until spotting the place on a neighborhood stroll. It is one of the best-known specialists in its field in Japan. You can buy one of its smaller wares for just a few hundred yen. All you MUST do is to ensure that the kamaboko stays fresh, cool on the way back to Tokyo, and gets stored in the fridge. This is a delicacy that is best consumed on arrival.

My hosts in Kyoto, I found, were taken aback by my taste in omiyage, even by the simple fact that I had found Ibarakiya on my own. “Hmmm, you are really a shimbunkisha,” remarked Kanji Yoshida, the execu­tive director of the Kyoto Shimbun.

One of his staff. Konaka-san, wondered at the fact that my blind wanderings had led me far afield from my hotel—well, about half a mile, no more. Yet another staffer, Koji Tanigaki, made sure that I could pick up my kamaboko taiomedetai koto desu kara—at the last moment, to secure maximum freshness on arrival back in Tokyo.

The preparation of these gifts thereby became a whole production.

And my point?

In times of stress (I personally have found Mr. Clinton’s travails unpleasant) do yourself a favor: get on the Nozomi express, close your eyes and arrive in Kyoto. There is a “liberal” atmosphere there to com­pare with none other in the land. It is a natural habitat for newspaper people akin to say Boston or, for that matter, Paris—the two sister cities of Kyoto. I found myself giving Yoshida-san the name of Tony Lewis, so that on his next visit he makes sure to look up the Boston-based New York Times columnist.

Which brings me to my point. In recent weeks, I have been an eager reader of Tony Lewis’ columns. He has written that the institution of the presidency is at risk in America; that it is unacceptable for the chief executive of the world to be placed at the mercy of an independent prosecutor; that the Congress should let the late 1960s’ legislation which made this possible, lapse when the law expires next year.

Tony’s columns have struck a hopeful note in the paper of record. At a time when the editorial page has called for the president to resign—only pulling back from this brink at a point so late in the day as to make no difference—his columns have said in effect, “Wait a moment, the republic is ill-served by sniping from a direction not envisioned by the Constitution.”

Yes. Those of you who function in the financial mar­kets will have been aware that said markets did not care to see the fate of the world’s most powerful office-holder called into question by the assertions of little Monica.

The saving grace was supplied by another Times columnist, Maureen Dowd. She likened the Starr re­port to 445 pages of Harold Robbins, and marveled at “Reverend Starr’s” taste for “voyeuristic” detail. The Times, which has played such a big part in these five-six years of president-tracking, starting with its pur­suit of Whitewater, has carried columns that, for me, called in question the initial reporting stance: to push on Whitewater, a failed real estate deal. Have col­leagues at the paper who joined in the blood sport over these years led private lives so immaculate that they could then have withstood five years of subpoe­naing of their lovers?

Wandering the back streets of Kyoto I forgot about the whole mess, knowing in my bones, I guess, that it will be allowed to blow over. Or we face gigantic trouble in the world. America, if my fellow Americans will permit me, has never seemed more provincial than in the last few months.

To be provincial can be a great strength—the city of Kyoto says. It can also be a huge limitation, a source of weakness.

If they so much as tamper with Willy’s slightest eyelash on this issue, forget the $, forget Wall Street, forget world peace. Tell me I’m wrong!