Monday, 1 April 2013

Japan: Week 3

3 - Kyoto

This week I realised, whilst counting through all the things I've gotten used to, all the things which have just slipped into my routine without having to get used to them at all. There are no conveyor belts at supermarkets - you just queue up with your basket. You don't even look for the smallest queue, they're so quick that there's no point moving from the one right in front of you. There are no buttons to press at pedestrian crossings, they're all timed. Buses have a fixed fare, you don't pay for how far you're going. It feels strange, stranger than the little things you do have to remind yourself of (taking off shoes...) to discover there are parts of living a completely foreign life which make more sense to your subconscious than the life you've lived for nineteen years.

It was another Bjork week. Quiet and peaceful. I read for research for my dissertation, I went to the gym because if there's really no frisbee for 4 months, the least I can do is come back totally ripped, I cooked.

Then, at three o'clock on Friday afternoon, I boarded a coach for Kyoto. It's Hanami, cherry blossom viewing, in Kyoto at the moment, and consequently one of the busiest times of the year for the city. During Spring, foreigners and Japanese alike will flock to each city as its native flower comes into bloom in turn. We decided to throw ourselves into the fray, and booked coaches and a room for Friday night. Saturday appears to be all booked up? Oh well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

We reached Kyoto station, and decided it would be easiest just to get a taxi to the hostel first time around as it wasn't far away, and then we'd know how to walk to and from the station. Unfortunately, this was one of those times when the Japanese are so desperate to be helpful that they end up being quite the opposite. The taxi driver had no idea either where the hostel was, despite us having the full address written down in Japanese, or how to use his SatNav. Luckily you can just go up to anyone in uniform in Japan and they'll help you out. Consequently, we ended up walking another 40 minutes to the actual location of our hostel, which was about 5 minutes away from the station, in the opposite direction we had just come. Ah well, it was fresh air, and it was Kyoto.

We had a delicious dinner in a much fancier restaurant than we intended to eat at, but it was worth every penny as a one-off. We stayed for hours, talking and drinking. Eventually we decided to call it a night, as we wanted a full day of sight-seeing come the morning. It was another pleasant stay in a hostel - I've yet to find a poor one in Japan.

In the morning we headed straight for Kinkaku-Ji, the Golden Pavilion. My third visit to the temple, and I still find it difficult to take in the side of the pure gold building, floating in the middle of a lake. It was the first time the weather's been good too, and the gold leaf gleamed, and the reflections in the water were so vivid.

Next stop was Nijo Castle, with the Nightingale Floor as an ancient security device; the wooden floorboards sing like birds when they're stepped on. Again, the sunshine and the cherry blossom made walking around the gardens so beautiful, and I was glad I had the opportunity to visit these landmarks yet again.

The final sight-seeing destination of the day was Fushimi-Inari, with a huge shrine at the base and many trails winding their way up the side of a mountain, the paths covered all the way along with hundreds of bright orange torii. There are many paths to take and it would take a couple of hours if you were fit enough to march smartly up them all, but we just ventured up one as high as you could go, and were rewarded with a view of Kyoto. Along the way and at the end of each trail are more, smaller shrines, as well as many places to stop and buy a drink for the thirsty traveller. We also discovered that these torii are purchased, and are inscribed with family names and dates. Prices start at around £2,500 for the smallest, anyone interested...?

After the magnitude of steps it was time for dinner, so we headed to Gion, the Geisha district. The only place big enough to house our group was an all-you-can-eat restaurant, which had a cooking pot in the middle of the table in which you fry as many strips of beef and bowls of vegetables as you like. After we staggered out, we made our way to the karaoke we'd located on our food-hunt, how we'd decided to cross the bridge we'd now come to...

Astonishingly, we managed to find some songs we hadn't got through last mammoth karaoke session, and we also replayed a few favourites. We all collapsed at around 3 in the morning. At this particular karaoke, kicking-out time was 5 am, so, out into the wide world we went once again, after what mathematically should have been two hours sleep, but in reality was about 20 minutes.

In our early morning wanderings we watched a small group of policemen taking a jog (I kid you not), and made our way to a nearby shrine. We soon discovered that during hanami, our behaviour wasn't in the slightest bit bizarre. Another example of Japan working hard and playing hard, they set up mats under the sakura and relax for hours, start drinking early and carry on all night. Some groups were peacefully sleeping in sleeping bags, but others were still in full celebration mode, and were only too glad to invite us to the party.

Taken at 5.30 am

Taken at 6 am

So for a few hours we lolled around, taking photos of the beautiful scenery and making Japanese friends. We only had to wait until 8 am, and Starbucks would be open. After warming up a little, it was back into tourist mode. We went to Kiyomizu-dera, only a short walk away, and ambled around, feeling much more delicate than the day before.

The first Japanese child in history to be brave enough to want to be in a photo with gaijin

The rest of the time we had left in Kyoto was spent perusing the shops in Gion, and wondering whereabouts Geisha used to, and still might, live. By beautiful coincidence, a man told us that there were lots of people down a particular street because some Maiko, apprentice Geisha, would be making their debut appearances that day, and would be appearing just before we had to get the train back to Kyoto station.

Against the cherry blossom, this woman represents centuries' worth of Japanese culture. Beautiful, flawless, one could nevertheless sense her breathing a little heavily, faced with so many photographers, not to mention foreigners, frantically snapping away. I wondered if she worried about the attention of those like me. Would she think I wouldn't understand the difficulties she's gone through on a daily basis to be where she is now? Would she worry I wouldn't find her perfect, ignorant in my knowledge of the culture she epitomises? At one moment she looked straight into my eyes, and I'll never know if my utter respect and understanding of her lifestyle passed between us in those precious few seconds, but I hope it did.

If there's one moment I won't forget in all my time I'll be here, it'll be this one.

From Gion it was back to Kyoto station and the coach, back to nagoya and the underground, back to the bus, and a short walk to collapsing into bed. Who'd have thought I'd break my record of number of hours awake after just one short week? For those interested, it stands at 38 hours.

A couple of exciting things happening next week! See you then.


There were a great many photos from this weekend, and I couldn't possibly post them all here. To see more:

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