“How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart” Florentyna Leow (The Emma Press) – book review

Florentyna Leow How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart book cover

The foreword posits that “capturing a city in words is impossible, but everyone tries… Your Kyoto will not be the same as mine,” and ask questions about what home means to a migrant and how many places can mean home when you’ve lived in more than one. Home means falling in love with a place. And falling in love exposes you to heartbreak when it’s time to leave.

After graduating in London, Florentyna Leow moved to Tokyo and then was offered the opportunity to move to Kyoto with a university friend. It also meant swapping a hated job in retail with one in customer services, albeit a mundane one of emailed correspondence with clients wanting to book guided tours in Japan. Home became a rickety house with a persimmon tree in the yard, a view of Mount Hiei, delicious tap water and the second highest number of bakeries per 100,000 people in Japan. The tree offered lessons in how plants respond to the seasons and the tradition of leaving a few pieces of fruit on the tree for the birds in hope of a good harvest the following year. A bitter, unripe persimmon becomes a metaphor for the friend moving out and ghosting the writer.

She notes that people tend to assume she’s Japanese but her heritage is Malaysian-Chinese, “When I first moved to Japan to work in retail, I took pleasure in concealing my foreignness. I’d worked hard to acquire these language skills, so being able to (mostly) escape detection felt like winning. After a while, however, it stopped being of benefit to me. Not only did this society encourage blending in, but serving customers was another way I had to learn how to disappear, which only reinforced my propensity for passivity and avoiding confrontation.”

Leow confesses she rarely wrote about her Kyoto housemate “Afterwards, I couldn’t write about her for a long time, because that would have meant admitting what I’d lost. It would have meant admitting that I’d lost.” It never becomes clear why the housemates fell out, but Leow feels it might be that two young women trying to find their way in a house share where both shared a desk in the kitchen to work from home on, making it difficult to give each other space was a strong contributory factor.

To supplement her salary, Leow took on being a tour guide, noticing the dichotomy between wanting the share the city she’d made home but also wanting there to be fewer tourists so the tourist hot-spots would be less crowded where people could speak without being drowned out by instructions from guides and there wasn’t the insistent clicking of cameras or phone buttons. Finding no joy in guiding tourists around Kyoto, triggered the decision to move back to Tokyo. It also meant becoming freelance which meant being busy because it was too difficult to say no to work in case the question wasn’t asked again. As a tour guide, Leow could put on a performance and pretend to be someone else for the duration. She compares Kyoto to Tokyo, “there are things Kyoto simply does better, like my favourite soy milk ramen. Its velvety broth coats my tongue like single cream; it’s close to perfect with the acid-bright, salty pickled plum paste.” She thinks everyone needs a place of their own, “to be a regular somewhere.”

Naturally, she returns to Kyoto and remembers her housemate, “the sound of our keyboards clacking away, the kimono hanging in her room, the glow of her bedside light as she read in her futon. Ordinary moments knitting the days together.”

“How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart” is really a love letter to a former housemate who took a chance on inviting Leow to a city where she found what was important to her. Lessons she could take to Tokyo or elsewhere. Chatty and informal in style these essays focus on one aspect and invite the reader to share the atmosphere and soak up what makes this coffee house or tea house special. Even the unsuccessful attempts at persimmon-based recipes contain a lesson, not spelt out as a moral to take away but tasted and lingered over. Kyoto taught her how to make a home, how to notice and pay attention to the small details that make a difference between just another street and the street that leads home. A warm and compassionate tribute to both the city and the lost friend.

“How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart” is available from The Emma Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

2 Responses to ““How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart” Florentyna Leow (The Emma Press) – book review”

  1. jessi pauline Says:

    oh wow! this review sold me. adding this one to my tbr immediately. so unique and a lovely cover as well.

  2. emmalee1 Says:

    Hope you enjoy.

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