The train whizzes us through a multitude of industrial Japanese towns, past model housing estates and factories. There’s green and hills and trees, but none of it looks untouched, every little corner looks neatly melded into the right shape for productivity.
We emerge at Kyoto station, Japan’s largest and a visual spectacle that rivals even my old favourite, London St Pancras.
Our Airbnb is a traditional Japanese home tucked down a quiet (almost eerily so) suburban backstreet. We have received incredibly detailed instructions from the fastidious host, down to GoPro footage of the route to the right bus stop at Kyoto station. And even though her instructions that we could reach the property via a ‘slope, which is a small thing between a building and a building’ seemed slightly cryptic when we read them, they fall perfectly into place when we get off the bus. Like one of those weird but perfect concepts you read in a Murakami novel.
It’s a cosy and interesting little house, since the sleeping arrangements differ somewhat from western style. You sleep on a thin futon laid directly onto the tatami mats. There’s little in the way of decoration, just a small cabinet with some figurines of traditionally dressed Japanese men, keeping watch over the room.
We head out for some food, finding a little diner named (unappealingly?) ‘Brown’ around the corner. The seating is lined up along the counter, and the ageing proprietor resides in the middle, spooning miso into bowls for us. The ceiling is low, the walls are lined with hundreds upon hundreds of manga books, their faded spines gleaming with the subtle sheen of cooking fat. It feels like this man and this place have been here for many, many years.
He serves us generous plates of chicken katsu with rice, a dinky dish of potato salad on the side. It’s cheap and pretty damn good.
Before bed we have a chat about eastern superstitions. It’s common for Thais to believe in ghosts and appeasing the spirits, and this goes for the Japanese too. I start thinking about all the Japanese horror films I’ve seen, and remark on how brilliant they seem to be at creating tension and dread. Then I go to bed on the tatami mat upstairs, in our room with the little shrine in the corner and cabinet lined with 20 white-faced dolls at its entrance.
Unsurprisingly I awake at 3 in the morning with a feeling of tension and dread. I feel like the figurines in the corner are watching me. I also really need a wee. I have to hold it in until the morning, when I enter the comfy little lounge with its heated rugs and squishy armchairs and laugh at myself for being so bloody ridiculous.
Having said that, when researching this article I discovered it’s considered bad luck to stand on the edge of a tatami mat because they are sometimes decorated with family emblems. There’s a high likelihood that I did this. So maybe what I endured was the equivalent of an evening of disapproving glares from the ancestors.
Culture and catnaps
The following morning we walk the lovely philosopher’s path, along the Shishigatani canal. The path is fringed with cherry blossom trees, their petals already shed, but still suffused with a glow like the flush left after a kiss. We visit the Ginkakuji temple, which is swarming with tourists, and then the much quieter and contemplative Honen-In temple.
From there we walk into town for the Geisha show. We pass a mother and daughter clad in kimonos, hand in hand. We pass an elderly lady walking a shih tzu. Its paws are encased in little blue crocs, and when it wees on a lamppost she produces a bottle of water to rinse the post clean.
The geisha show takes place in a beautiful theatre in Gion, and we sink happily into the warmth and the sumptuous seats. We emerge 90 minutes later, blinking.
Me: ‘What did you think?’
Bart: ‘It was good, yeah. Um, I liked the bit with the lady. In the costume.’
Matt: ‘Yeah. Uh, me too. And the set with the stuff on it.’
Binny: ‘Oh yeah. And that bit, when that thing happened.’
Me: ‘And what about the dance they did, where they moved!’
Bart: ‘Which dance was that again?’
Me *cracking* ‘OH MY GOD WHAT’S WITH THE QUESTIONS! OKAY OKAY, OKAY I BLOODY ADMIT IT, I FELL ASLEEP! HAPPY? HAPPY???’
Bart *bows head*: ‘Yeah. Yeah me too.’
Binny: ‘I was asleep for most of it.’
Matt: ‘I also rested my eyes for a lengthy period.’
Ultimate cultural failure from team Bangkok.
Still, the glimpses we did get – the bizarre, hypnotic dance sequences, the expressionless faces, the elegant and beautiful sets and costumes, make it a worthwhile trip for the more culturally refined.
We head straight to the Kyoto Manga Museum. It’s much like a library, with thousands upon thousands of manga comics from Doraemon to Berserk.
There’s a couple of good exhibitions, including a big display of gunpla, intricately built anime robots by award-winning artists. The level of detail is astounding. I found this particular collection particularly arresting – the sculptor says he gets inspiration from his dreams and this comes across in the way he’s managed to make machines look wispy and swirling. I learn that there’s a giant gundam statue on show in Tokyo. I picture Michael Bay standing in front of it, and it suddenly comes to life and stomps on him.
We end the day with ramen followed by umeshu in the unfortunately named ‘Bar Colon’.
I sleep like a log, left alone by the house’s ancestors. They must have said their piece already, I guess.