Japan 2018 Travel

Kyoto Times

12 September 2018

Sometimes, it rains in Japan. The past couple of weeks, it has become abundantly clear that it rains in Japan and that this causes problems. Thankfully, the only problem with the rain we encountered, was getting drenched. As true Northerners, we wouldn’t let it dampen our spirit one iota.

At first, I didn’t understand the forecast. There was a predicted 100% chance of rain. Now, in the Netherlands I’ve seen chances of 90% which, to me, means that it will surely rain, but statisticians and lawyers never work with absolutes, so 90% is the highest probability the app will provide. I didn’t understand what could make it 100%.

But today, I found out what it means. It means it rains all day. The whole day. As in, relentlessly. Without stopping. Even for a second. There is no letting up. No temporary lull. No dry patches, however short they may be. It simply pours down. From Hiroshima to Kyoto. From Kyoto station to our hotel. And on and on and on.

Since we have a couple of days in the city, and really, the weather doesn’t allow for any activities that take place in an uncovered area, we decide to just go to a Japanese shopping mall. I may not enjoy shopping as much as sight-seeing, but in different countries, it can be fun to see what is being sold. And so I enjoy people watching, trying on a few items that appear to be fashionable around here and fall in love with a cast iron teapot that I refuse to buy, because I am simply not adding that kind of weight to my pack.

For lunch, I retry my Japanese phrases, but am kindly rebuffed. The waitress speaks English, so I don’t have to bother. My ego is bruised, but the pork and rice more than make up for it. And really, I expected not to be understood in this country as much as I expected not to understand it. So far, it’s been anything but difficult though and I love how we are now travelled enough to manage to navigate a new country with only minimal efforts.

What I also love, is having made friends all over the world. Especially when they happen to be in the same city at the same time. Even more especially when that city is on the other side of the world.

I met Emily in Cape Town, while I was living in Utrecht and she was (and is) living in London. Now, we are both visiting Kyoto with our partners and we get to meet up! What an incredibly small world!

And just like that we get to spent a lovely night eating wonderful food, drinking cocktails by the side of the river and ending up drinking whisky in a bar, all the while exchanging stories as if we haven’t left each other’s side in the past five years. I wish we lived closer to each other, but just maybe, these short and intense meet-ups are just as great. As we walk back, the rain clears up. It’s dark and silent, but there is a magical crispness in the air that can only come from the rain washing the world clean again. I think I am going to like this place.

The next day, we do what Dutch people are known for, other than being tall and ice skating that is. We ride our rented bikes all over Kyoto. It’s a day filled with rode lines, white spaces and real pine trees. A day filled with thousands of rode Shinto shrines and spirits everywhere, wishing us every kind of happiness in the world: love, luck, health, family and meaning. In short, we discover the spiritual and touristy hearts of the city.

By the end of the day we make our way to Fushimi Inari-taisha. The name may not mean much to you, but the pictures should be known to anyone who’s ever been interested in Japan. It thousands of vermillion shrines snaking their way up the mountain. It’s the golden hour so the light is slanting inwards, making the colours stand out in a warm kind of way. And it’s making the tourists like us flock in and occupying every single crevice in the hopes of snapping a shot without other tourists in it. For me, it’s a lesson in patience. Knowing the light will fade away soon, but remaining in one place, to shoot what I believe will be beautiful pictures, while other tourist keep passing me by and ruining the shot. It’s a tough lesson and I am not sure it was worth the frustration, but the pictures do look great, if I say so myself.

Apparently, Kyoto is the place to be these weeks. Not only have we been able to catch up with friends of mine, but a bunch of Eriks friends are in town as well. And so, I get to spend the night dining out with five guys, none of whom dare eat the raw chicken we are served. For me, nagging hunger prevails and I simply eat the whole plate in the hopes of silencing the rumblings. It’s no use, we end up at McDonalds to fill our stomachs (the horror of visiting a place like that somewhat softened by the knowledge we’ll eat well again tomorrow).

And what else is a group of people to do in Japan but doing karaoke? So we rent a booth and before I’ve really come to terms with having to sing (I don’t sing. I cannot carry a tune to save my life), the boys have started belting out all kinds of classics. It’s a laugh and well worth the few bucks we spent. So, with pain in my belly from laughing so much, I crawl into bed, wandering what else Kyoto will have in store for us.

It’s a late start that becomes even later as we have a leisurely breakfast. There is no need to rush, we will get to see everything we want in the next two days. And so, we stroll to Sanjusangendo and enjoy the 1001 golden “bodhavistas” sitting the the large hall made of dark panelled wood. They are guarded by fierce looking gods. Their black hues only broken by jewelled eyes that have strangely real quality about them. It’s an intense visit through a wooden palace that takes us past rooms used for different ceremonies that seem overly complicated to my untrained and modern eyes. All part of the history of this beautiful place.

Outside, a group of schoolchildren approach us. For their English classes they’ve been instructed to ask tourists like us a bunch of questions. We’ve seen them do it all over the city and I am happy to help them. It’s a lovely way to learn a new language!

The day is warming up by then and so we decide to head to the bambooforest of Arashiyama a bit earlier. From the architectonical wonder that is Kyoto station (unassuming when approach, but incredibly tall and open once you get inside) we travel to the gardens surrounding the forest.

The forrest is smaller than I anticipated and so, much more crowded by tourists. But it is still a magical place. The sun softly filters through the long green stems of the bamboo, past the almost yellow plumes on top all the way down to the ground that is covers in soft layers of fallen leaves. They seem to reach towards the sky as if wishing to fly. The wind catches the trees and makes them dance to music they create by their abundance. It’s as unique as it is magical.

Dinner that night is enjoyed on the edge of the Gion district. It’s cold sake that I am finally learning to appreciate (non of the over alcoholised shit that is sold in our supermarkets as “sake”) accompanied by Japanese style tapas. We get to see the chef create each dish – just the way we like it – and would have spent more time if the bill wasn’t given to us rather unceremoniously. So, the night continues with a stroll through the traditional area of Gion. No Geishas here (other than the obviously fake tourists), but we do get to drink G&T with spiced alcohol. The funny thing is, that the apple and cinnamon drinks, actually taste like apple and cinnamon. The mint and strawberry drink tastes of mint and strawberry. And strangest of all, the cucumber drink actually tastes of cucumber!

Our senses laced with alcohol, we stroll back to our hotel. Past the red lampions illuminating the dark wooden structures of this area. The night is perfect and I consider myself very lucky indeed to be here. Blisters forgotten, head a little less loud and love by my side.

And just like that, our final day in Kyoto has arrived. We’ve seen pretty much all we HAD TO SEE and so, we decide to just stroll through the city. We return to Gion because it looked so pretty during the evening. I have a blast focussing in details. From the demons spouting water from the roofs (reminding me of the gargoyles at the Notre Dame in Paris) to the lions proving luck and longevity for each person passing them. From the little prayer papers near the temples, to the traditional bride that is just walking through the door. From the tourist Geisha perfectly contrasting with the wooden panels of the houses, to the tourist Geisha blending in with a colourful display of cloths behind them.

And while I am searching for details, Erik’s eyes are trained on food. We each see the world in our own way. For me, especially when travelling, I see the world in stories. In words and images. Perhaps for Erik, its  food. And so, we look and eat our way through Gion.

The final thing we’ve got planned is a traditional tea ceremony. I knew it might be an awkward tourist trap, but everything I’ve ever read about Japan has talked of the beautiful tea ceremonies. So booked us a private ceremony at En. And it was wonderful.

We get a short explanation, but the ceremony itself is completely silent. The woman calmly goes through the different actions, each one steeped (pun intended) in symbolism and rules that provide a unique kind of beauty. She manages to exude such a tranquillity, that the sounds of the road just outside, the noise from the (very necessary) air-condition and the sound of boiling water just drop away. The nerves drop away and I become calm in a way that is not usually the case.

After the ceremony, the woman returns to explain what she just did. I am expecting a calm sensei like woman, but we are greeted by a bubbly and vivacious one. She is so happy to explain things and laughs ecstatically as I answer each question she poses in true Hermione style (yes, I am geeky like that, love it!).

But just like that, our time in this wonderful city is coming to an end. We have some drinks on a rooftop and some more food in the centre. I don’t really want to leave this beautiful city, but am excited to see what the next few days will bring. We are going on a pilgrimage!

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