Kyoto. Ancient capital of Japan and modern day tourist-trap. I can see why though: it's a very beautiful city. With the Sakura (cherry blossom) in full swing it is THE place to be, but if you're cunning (like me) then you'll know how to avoid the crowds. Take for example yesterday afternoon when Kae and I set out on a short hike, guided by Lonely Planet. Half way along the popular route we were offered a choice of three unmarked paths. I decided that the guide book (which up until that point had been spot on) must be wrong in telling us to take the central track, and instead turned left.
We spent the next three hours scrambling along a monkey path, stopping only occasionally to wipe the mud from our trousers and massage the pain from our bums when we slipped on the steep descent. It was one of those paths where if there weren't trees to hold onto you'd end up snowballing to your death. Still, we certainly avoided the crowds - never saw a single soul!
Having finally managed to find civilisation again, we took a subway to Heian Jingu, a huge shrine in central Kyoto. I'd been there before, about 18 months ago, but it wasn't until we got there that I remembered the place with it's huge entrance gate and beautifully landscaped gardens. They'd looked rather dreary on my first (autumnal) visit, but yesterday I came to appreciate why so many people go there - the display of cherry blossom was the most beautiful I've seen yet, with the blooming branches trailing overhead on a network of trellises.
When in Kyoto there is only 1 place to stay: Uno House.
With it's resident cockroaches (only seen if you're up before 7am when you'll find them crawling out of the kitchen sink) and a great multinational mix of characters, Kae and I like it so much that we are making a return visit. In fact, it was at the Uno House table that we first met in November 2000. Kae has an amazing memory and can recall the first thing that I ever said to her - which is unfortunately quite inappropriate for my homepage and I wish she had the memory of a goldfish.
All that rowing has left me with blisters!
Having this morning visited the Golden Temple of Japan (see my photos), this afternoon saw us in the tourist-town of Arashiyama, not far outside Kyoto. As usual, the place was heaving, and when it all got a bit too much for us we escaped onto the river, hiring a boat and rowing off upstream for an hour where peace and quiet reigned supreme. That was, until a huge motor boat headed straight for us, honking its airhorn with no reduction in speed. I've never rowed so fast in my life! We made it by the skin of our teeth, missing him by only a couple of metres (then promptly crashing into some rocks).
The last thing I expected to find myself suffering from whilst in Kyoto was reverse-culture-shock, but that's just what I'm now experiencing.
It was last night that I noticed it, whilst sitting in the kitchen/lounge area with 2 fellow Brits, 2 Canadians and an Australian chap. I felt OK when first sitting down with them, but as the minutes ticked by so my stress levels rose. I just couldn't connect. Everything was said from a western viewpoint, with a complete ignorance of the land that they are in. I know it's not their fault; most of them have only been in Japan for a few weeks - how could they be expected to be sensitive to the local atmosphere?
What drove it home for me was what I saw when two Japanese guests entered the room to cook some food. As they started to prepare their meal so the foreigners in the room began to talk about what funny food they were making, blatantly laughing at them with the attitude that they wouldn't understand a word in any case. As it turned out the Japanese guests could speak English, and understood much of what was said.
I am finding it difficult to cope with these feelings of repulsion towards other foreigners. It wasn't a problem at my office in Tokyo - they were my friends and we were all in the same boat. It's not a nice thing feel so negatively towards other people for no good reason.
So you see, it's quite a shock for me to find that I have become so used to being in a Japanese environment that when coming across a western environment such as that here at Uno house, my natural reaction is to run the other way.
Need to recharge your batteries at the end of a hard days work? Take a dip in the Electric Bath!
Tonight was my third trip to this particular sento (public bath) in Kyoto, but it was the first time that I understood why I started convulsing when stepping into one of the 7 different baths. Only tonight did I finally understand the sign in Japanese above it:
I used to think the brave men were the one's who could hack the sauna for the longest, now I know it's those who can endure the power of the Electric Bath.
Sunday 7th April 2002 - Midday (GMT+9) on a train, Japan
I'm writing this from the train as Kae and I head back to Tokyo from central Japan. We were going to hitch (as we did from Kyoto to Toyohashi, 6 hours), but we've just got too much luggage and it's raining - at least, that's our excuse.. Instead, we've opted to take the train which at ¥5,000 (£27) is pretty cheap anyway and involves less leg and thumb work. I feel utterly exausted having had to endure 5 weeks of lie-ins and relaxation - I'm looking forward to starting work on my mikan farm next week.
Anyway, about the Tea Grower's Secret. As we head East towards Tokyo we are passing through fields and fields of tea. It's all very neat, planted in short fat rows wherever there is space. In many of the fields stand little fans on lamp-posts, facing down at a 45 degree angle. They're not much bigger than your average office fan bought down the local DIY store for ten quid, and as they're positioned about 5 metres above the tea they're not really going to have any effect on the plants themselves. Half the time they're not turning in any case. So what are they there for?
One idea was that they are there to scare the birds away, but as I've only seen them in tea-fields I doubt that that is the case. It looks so daft to have a load of office-fans on lamposts. Any tea-growers out there who can explain the reason for this bizarre sight?
(I would take a photo for you but the windows are rather grubby)
Monday 8th April 2002 - 22:29(GMT+9) Tokyo, Japan
And only yesterday I was planning to go work down south on a Mikan farm.
I got an email last night from the owner of a pension (Japanese guesthouse with all entertainment provided) in west Hokkaido (the most northerly island) telling me that they are looking for someone to help them out over the summer, starting the week after next. I love Hokkaido, with it's vast unspoilt beauty, volcanoes and lack of spoken English. I called him this morning, and then this afternoon I bought a ticket for the 31-hour ferry trip north . I love that sea route. Japanese ferries are just the best, with great thick carpets to sleep on and peaceful baths with views of the Sea of Japan. Damn cheap too at ¥8,000 (£40). I sail from Maizuru (north of Osaka) on Monday 22nd April.
Meanwhile, Kae and I have only four days left together having spent the last 6 months living in one another's pockets. It's going to hurt, I know it will. Thankfully we are both going to find ourselves in completely different situtions shortly: Kae will be spending 7 months in Italy, and, as I said above, I'll be off to Hokkaido. Hopefully the new stresses and challenges in our lives will help to take our minds off the pain.
It's the longest I've ever been with someone without driving them completely mental. She's just, wonderful.
Ce La Vie. :-(
Saturday 20th April 2002 - 22:29(GMT+9) Osaka, Japan
Well, I won't bore you with the details, but basically I left Tokyo (and Kae), experienced shocking post-split pain, and stayed with Sandy near Osaka for a couple of days (she did a great job of looking after me, although I must admit that her toilet leaves a lot to be desired - it's the drop type and stinks like hell. Incidentally, I had the most horrendous nightmare about it last night - I was woken by my own cries for help as I fell...).
After that it was off to Sadako's place. I first met Sadako in 2000 in Switzerland when she walked into my Swiss hotel where I was working at the time, asking me if we sold postcards. Six months later we met again by chance in Osaka tourist info where she works (although at that time we had no idea that we'd met before), and it was only when we once again bumbed into one another (on a train near Osaka when I was very drunk) and subsequently spent the day together that we realised that we'd met in Switzerland the previous summer. Six months after that she visited the Swiss Alps once again, and then last week we met again as I stayed with her family here in Kansai. She is so kind, as are her whole family. Being with them I really felt at home, and I appreciate the great effort that they went to to make me feel at home. THANKS SADAKO!!!
Kae and I missed one another so much that Kae made the 9-hour bus trip to Osaka to join me for my last few days on Honshu. We're now in a very nice business hotel which even has an onsen on the top floor - when they started digging for the foundations they discovered a natural hot spring under the site.
Well must be off for a soak: the view over Osaka from the bath is great!I
HONESTY SPOTTED IN HEALTH CLUB SIGN!
One wonders what was going through the head of the manager of this central-Osaka health club when he came up with this great catch-phrase. Maybe he just finds it impossible to lie. That, or he was hoping that learning English would go out of fashion.
Last time I got a boat to Hokkaido, Japan's most northerly island, it was pretty luxurious with a fantastic view of the sea from the bath. However, last night I found myself boarding a ferry that really should be in The Jurassic Museum of Transport. The carpet on which I am sleeping has been nicely stained with a great variety of brown-coloured substances, and the on-board entertainment is beyond reproach: there's plenty of window-lickers to observe and there's a fantastic swimming pool on deck (shame it's empty).
The entire boat - inside and out - has a protective coating of salt water residue, leaving one with lovely fresh sticky fingers whatever one touches.
What with all the stress of Kae and I splitting up yesterday, I quite forgot about food. Oh well, nevermind. For the 31-hour voyage I've got three Walkers Shortbread Fingers, a box of chocolate-covered almonds and twenty Earl Grey T-bags to chew on between meals. The only vending machine with anything in it is full of beer...
After all those hours at sea, a ride on a couple of trains and in a bus I finally arrived at my new home for the next few months in north Japan, country inn Milky House.
Thankfully the owner and his family are very down-to-earth and welcoming (as can be seen in the photos ), and the general atmosphere is pretty relaxed. I've been doing lots of things since I got here 3 days ago, such as: Putting up a fence around three tennis courts, washing lots of dishes, cleaning toilets, acting as safety driver down the main road on a bicycle for a mini tractor-type thing with a big fence balanced precariously on its bucket, hoovering, mopping, cooking, acting as secretary when it comes to non-Japanese speaking guests, chain-sawing, putting up a big canopy on the terrace type thing, shovelling snow, avoiding the phone when it rings, scrubbing the kitchen, and lots of other odd-jobs.
The setting is beautiful, with a great view across a huge valley to some distant mountains. There's a fantastic volcano nearby too which I'll be climbing later this summer - watch this space.
Despite the many hours working, my energy has been spent on something else, namely stress. It's my first time to be in a Japanese-only environment, although the owner does speak pretty good English which helps a great deal. I am constantly looking up words in my dictionary as I struggle to understand what is expected of me - I just try to remember that total immersion is the best way to learn a language.
The other (main) reason for my mind being elsewhere is the recent parting from Kae, which has hurt a great deal. It's so difficult to deal with. What to do?
Only time will tell.
You catch me once more in Starbucks, one of the classic cafes to fall back on when in an unfamiliar Japanese town feeling lost and tired. Today's my first day off since I started work a week ago, so I've ventured out to the BIG city. It took three hours by train to get here, but that's Hokkaido for you. Big open spaces with nothing but trees and mountains for miles. Lots of window-lickers on the trains too, more than I ever saw in Tokyo.
Welcome to The Dungeon
I'm here to kit out my new room, which is probably best described by the name that I've given it: "The Dungeon". It's situated at the back of the house, half below ground-level, right next to the septic tank (sewage tank) which gives it that lovely smelly atmosphere and general damp feel. The murky green walls are smeared with some brown substance, probably by a former inmate who spent too many hours locked up in there, and someone else has slapped bright yellow "God Bless" stickers all over the place in a bid to avoid depression. I can't say they encourage me all that much.
Determined not to be overcome by the depths of despair, today I've spent the best part of £100 on 2 thick rugs, a warm bedside lamp, 5 huge sheets of paper to scribble new Japanese words on (and hide the brown smears on the walls), some delicate paper to create a new lampshade with (the current one, made out of toughened glass, is situated at forehead height) and a pillow case that I shall cut in half and cover my shelf with.
Oh, and a whole pile of incense sticks.