May 11th, 2014, 6pm in Higashiyama Ward, Japan
“Most Japanese girls giggle,” begins Capote's 1957 profile on Marlon Brando for The New Yorker.
I first came across this piece a few years ago during my Capote phase in which I was hunting down and devouring any and every piece of his writing I could find. This one resonated in a particularly powerful way. Capote wasn't just profiling Brando, he was profiling him in a post-war Kyoto that I had never before considered. And the combination of these characters in this setting captured my attention immediately. I made a mental note to visit the hotel the next time I found myself wandering the city.
The little maid on the fourth floor of the Miyako Hotel, in Kyoto, was no exception. Hilarity, and attempts to suppress it, pinked her cheeks (unlike the Chinese, the Japanese complexion more often than not has considerable color), shook her plump peony-and-pansy-kimonoed figure. There seemed to be no particular reason for this merriment; the Japanese giggle operates without apparent motivation. I'd merely asked to be directed toward a certain room. "You come see Marron?" she gasped, showing, like so many of her fellow-countrymen, an array of gold teeth. Then, with the tiny, pigeon-toed skating steps that the wearing of a kimono necessitates, she led me through a labyrinth of corridors, promising, "I knock you Marron."
The Miyako, built originally in 1900, has since lost its independence and as of 2002 is the slightly more gauche Westin Miyako Hotel. Still, it's big, and with over 500 rooms maintains a feeling of timeless grandiosity. Sat atop a hill on the eastern edge of Kyoto proper, nestled among temples, the hotel has beautiful sweeping views out over the city from almost every window.
As it happened, just last week I was in Kyoto, a final recuperatory stop on a longer journey. And so I made good on my literary self promise and reread the Brando profile seated in the lobby of the Miyako as wedding guests came and went, and bag handlers and concierges eyed me suspiciously. There's something convergent and delightful about reading a piece of literature in the place of its inception or inspiration. And while the Miyako I sat in was hardly the Miyako that Capote encountered, I justified the indulgence in believing there was enough overlap to feel the collapse of time in a way that was meaningful, if not entirely accurate.
As I finished the piece I felt an inspiration to hunt down Brando's room. Why not? It was unlikely that any semblance of a room he would have occupied may still exist, but I was so close, how could I not peek?
Thankfully, Capote goes on to describe the types of rooms of the Miyako, including Brando's:
… for the convenience of Japanese guests who prefer their own mode of décor while desiring the prestige of staying at the Miyako, or of those foreign travelers who yearn after authentic atmosphere yet are disinclined to endure the unheated rigors of a real Japanese inn, the Miyako maintains some suites decorated in the traditional manner, and it was in one of these that Brando had chosen to settle himself. His quarters consisted of two rooms, a bath, and a glassed-in sun porch.
Here was all the information I needed: Miyako Hotel, fourth floor, Japanese room.
Up I went. Sure enough, the signage outside of the elevator indicated not only the presence of Guest Rooms, but very specifically: Japanese Style Guest Rooms. Maybe the hotel hadn't changed much?
I wound my way through the labyrinthian corridors of the fourth floor. It sprawled in all directions. I nodded curtly to staff walking opposite me in the hallway, tried to look like I knew where I was going, like I belonged there.
After passing a series of meeting rooms, a couple weddings, and a smoking lounge, I finally found the guest room corridor. I smiled wondering if this was the same corridor Capote and Brando traversed, knowing that the plush carpet most certainly couldn't have been the same.
There were only a handful of guest rooms on the floor. Maybe nine or ten. After passing the sixth room, the seventh's door was propped open by the door bar. I couldn't resist.
I gently pushed open the door to reveal a classic Japanese genkan entryway, and a smaller Japanese tatami room opening into a larger tatami room, just as Capote had described. I chuckled to myself imagining the heaping piles of scripts and half-opened Japanese gifts and plates of apple pie that would have filled the room had I opened this door on the night of the interview.
As I was daydreaming about the odd passage of time I heard a stirring from within and quickly and gently closed the door, running back through the various corridors to the elevator with tiny, light, hushed footsteps as if I wore a kimono, grinning like a little kid the whole way.
Capote's piece concludes with him leaving the hotel in the dead of the night:
Downstairs, the Miyako’s lobby was deserted. There was no one at the desk, nor, outside, were there any taxis in view. Even at high noon, the fancy crochet of Kyoto’s streets had played me tricks; still, I set off through the marrow-chilling drizzle in what I hoped was a homeward direction. I’d never before been abroad so late in the city. It was quite a contrast to daytime, when the central parts of the town, caroused by crowds of fiesta massiveness, jangle like the inside of a pachinko parlor, or to early evening—Kyoto’s most exotic hours, for then, like night flowers, lanterns wreathe the side streets, and resplendent geishas, with their white ceramic faces and their teal looping lacquered wigs strewn with silver bells, their hobbled wiggle-walk, hurry among the shadows toward meticulously tasteful revelries.
When I left, the lobby was still bustling and the evening sky still held the last traces of the day's light. I hopped on my rented bicycle and took off in search of food. It wasn't raining and the late spring air was so warm I didn't even need a jacket. This was a different Kyoto and different season than Capote had experienced, but I still couldn't shake the feeling that these small streets on which I biked were the same ones on which he walked. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a geisha in Gion as she wiggle-walked away. I sped on, suddenly hungry for a big meal.