I’m standing in a tangerine dream, camera focused along the tunnel before me, wanting more than anything to be alone.
I’m not as antisocial as it sounds, it’s just I’ve been standing here for a good 15 minutes and every time I go to take the shot some doddering human appears from around the corner, and much as I like collecting photos of complete strangers in hiking trousers who are looking at the camera in a vaguely alarmed way, I’d rather just have the empty tunnel if I’m honest.
I’m at Fushimi Inari, basically losing sight of the true splendour of a place because I’m so busy trying to photograph it so the joke’s on me ultimately. This amazing temple is built at the foot of a sacred mountain, which is criss-crossed with paths shaded by thousands of orange gates.
Inari is the Shinto god of rice, hence the fox statues watching over many sections of the path. They are said to be Inari’s messengers. A much more spiritual role than they have in the UK where the only rice they’re likely to be associated with is egg-fried and guzzled fresh from a tipped wheelie bin. Seeing them represented by these statues I’m reminded of how we overlook their potentially regal qualities.
Eating eggs, throwing eggs
At the bottom of the shrine is a food market selling all kinds of treats, from skewers of barbecued beef to trays piled high with yakisoba, and best of all, freshly cooked okonomiyaki. It’s an omelette cooked on a hotplate piled high with delicious toppings and then smothered in okonomi sauce which is a little like plum sauce. I have to eat it with chopsticks while perched on a wall and wind up looking a bit like this:
That evening, from across the continents, comes a request from old work colleagues in the UK. A good friend is leaving and they want a little video clip for their leaving do. As a result a singular scene unfolds which involves me sitting in our traditional Japanese house lip syncing to Wilson Phillips whilst my husband prepares to lob a hard-boiled egg at my face (it’s a long story but needless to say I would do anything for said friend).
Part of me hopes the Airbnb host isn’t secretly filming us. Part of me hopes they are.
On the morrow we visit the Higashi Honganji temple, one of the largest wooden structures in the world. The roof is supported by towering wooden pillars, which were dragged to their current location using ropes made from human hair donated by female devotees to Shin Buddhism.
Inside people are saying prayers for earthquake victims. I kneel with them awhile.
You know you’re on a special journey when your vehicle looks like this.
Our shinkansen glides into the station so smoothly and silently it’s like you blinked and then it was there. As it pulls in I secretly pretend that I summoned it personally and the other passengers are my guests.
We travel to Takayama through forested mountain valleys where small towns nestle like eggs in a basket.
When we arrive the owner of our Bed and Breakfast, Pension Yasuda, rumbles up in a van to meet us. He has a warm smile and as we set off he flicks on the stereo to (unexpectedly) the ‘greatest’ hits of the Backstreet Boys. Me and Binny sing along as we climb the back roads of the city. The skyline dazzles us with snowclad mountain peaks against a rosy pink evening sky.
When we arrive we are asked to leave our shoes at the door and each passed a pair of brown leathery slippers. These slippers must be swapped once more when entering the toilet, for which there is a pair of special Hello Kitty toilet slippers. It’s quite taxing for my little brain and I fully expect to arrive back at my Bangkok apartment in a week somehow wearing the toilet slippers.
Despite the footwear rules, it’s a very inviting guesthouse with a carpeted lounge. Our room has a wooden beamed ceiling and a mountain view.
We head into town to meet friends from Bangkok for dinner, rooting out an excellent, traditional style restaurant where the beef noodle broth is like a mouthful of heaven. The flask of nihonshu we drink here leaves us wanting more, and we end up huddled under a tarpaulin in a little bar latched onto the side of a tiny ramen shop. The ageing waitress smilingly beckons us to fetch our own little bottles of nihonshu from the fridge as she plonks down a steaming plate of gyoza before us.
We’re sitting in the corner drinking out of our tiny glasses when a group of suited, middle aged Japanese men come rolling in, laughing and plundering the nihonshu stocks in the fridge. They greet us loudly, cheeks flushed from booze (a condition I know only too well being also of Asian descent). After ten or so raucous minutes they start gesturing at us and then one of them plucks a bottle from the fridge and places it in the middle of our table, then bows and backs away. The drink within is the colour and texture of natural yoghurt. As we pick up and examine the bottle they guffaw. I worry about what they’re saying as we glug it back. It tastes like nihonshu, just… thick.
We feel like we should return the favour but nobody is brave enough to do it so in the end I pick a bottle out of the fridge and present it to their table with a flourish. But clearly I’ve violated some kind of sacred social code, since they look as horrified as if I’d suddenly produced a penis from my jeans and plonked it on their table – leaping out of their seats and shaking their heads and air pushing the bottle away. I retreat with my head bowed, puzzling over which part specifically was so offensive.
The plaice play the bass and they soundin’ sharp
We prowl the streets in search of karaoke and soon stumble upon a place. The first thing we see in the reception area is a middle aged man sat on the sofa, sobbing openly, tapping a message of despair into his mobile phone. I want to ask if he’s okay but the language barrier doesn’t really permit, plus I’m worried about violating another social code. Presumably he’s gearing up to a private booth and a solo heartfelt performance of ‘I wanna know what love is’.
In the relative normality of our own karaoke booth, Binny and me open by absolutely killing Under The Sea from The Little Mermaid. I like to think my performance is word-perfect, comical and provocative in a Sebastian-the-crab-is-actually-a-pimp kind of way. In reality it’s probably more like a grizzly bear that’s just been shot with a tranquiliser gun and is doing annoyed roars whilst also slowly succumbing to the anaesthesia.
We sing a large portion of the night away covering a diverse musical landscape from Rage Against the Machine to Carly Rae Jepson. Eventually we’re ejected by the owners into the chilly mountain air, the closing notes of Bohemian Rhapsody dissipating on the wind. The stars twinkle above us.