100 Happy Days / Day 59: Day 1 in Kyoto

It is 6am. Pitch dark inside the bus with thick curtains velcro-ed tightly together. One and a half more hours to go before reaching Kyoto. I try to fall back asleep again.

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7:30am. There is an announcement but the stop did not sound like Kyoto. I peer out of the window. It does not look familiar. Hmm, I start to get worried. The bus pulled over and the station read “JR Hikone”.

“When are we arriving at Kyoto?” I ask the bus driver and show him my reservation that stated arrival at 7:30am.

I can make out 2 hours somewhere in his reply, but I do not quite understand what he is trying to convey. Is the time here somehow 2 hours behind Tokyo? Surely he does not mean that we are 2 hours behind schedule? In the land of clockwork precision where a bus never even departs a minute late, 2 hours would be travesty! But it doesn’t seem like we are anywhere near Kyoto, so perhaps impossible things do happen!

I am supposed to meet Thomas, my couchsurfing host, at 8am. I need to find a way to contact him. With my hand signaling phone, I ask the driver, “borrow denwa to call tomodachi?”

“No no no no no”. By now another conductor boards and shakes his head vigorously while pointing me to return to my seat. With my limited conversational vocabulary, I have no choice but to beat a reluctant retreat back to my seat.

I decide to ask the lady seating next to me if I can borrow her cellphone. With a mix of English and Japlish, I somehow manage to get through to her. I manage to contact Thomas and settle down for another potentially 2 hour journey ahead. I have been on the bus for 9 hours now.

At the next rest stop, I decide to buy a coffee. But on the way back to the bus, I suddenly remembered the kind deed extended to me earlier by my neighbour! “Kohi?” I extended the hot can to her. She is surprised but accepts it, smiling. “Itadakimasu,” she beams and opens it immediately.

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Her stop is before Kyoto and before she alighted, she extends her hand to me. Surprised, I give her a hearty handshake and smile. I’m glad my little gesture made her happy! The more I get out and travel, the more I realize that there is friendship and kindness everywhere, free for the taking. Often, the only barrier is our unnecessary lack of faith in humanity.

I finally meet up with Thomas, who was my first official couchsurfing guest in Singapore. He is a student from America who speaks really good Japanese and also a bona fide musician who composes and records his own pieces. He is really good! You can follow his works here. This is what I like about couchsurfing – a giant family where “give and take” is the norm and everything is free!

Soon we reach the shared apartment of Thomas and his 2 other Japanese housemates. It is huge! But cosy at the same time.

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Satomi, whom I have never met before, has graciously offered to share her room with me. I really like Satomi. Perpetually happy and energetic, she coaches cheerdancers for one of Kyoto’s basketball teams. Her sunny personality is really a great fit for her work! I wish I have the chance to see her in action.

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We soon head out to explore Kyoto, and we drop by Thomas’s canteen, one of his usual lunch spots. By the way, transparent umbrellas! Seriously, somebody has to bring this into Singapore. Why do we not have transparent umbrellas here!?

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Eggs, lots of vegetables and a lunch set for only 500 yen. Oishii! I think this has to be my most-used word here in Japan. There are only 5 counter seats in this tiny hole in the wall. The shop has been open for 15 years but they recently changed their TV so now we have the local news streaming out to us in high resolution.

Kawai Kanjiro is one of Japan’s folk arts heroes and being the diligent travel planner I am (compared to Kenneth who is perfectly happy with spending a whole month on the ski slopes) I have listed his museum as one of my destinations for this trip. This museum used to be his actual residence and houses his wood firing kiln. The moment we stepped in, I feel like I have been transported to somewhere in the 1900s!

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A big fireplace stands tall and firmly centered in the living area. We hear from an old gentleman there that he was using this kind of heating system till around the WWII. The house is huge; which makes it all the more amazing that this ancient fireplace was sufficient to warm the entire space all by itself!

I love, love, love, old Japanese houses. They simply don’t make them like they used to. Solid wood joinery, high lofty ceilings; they often rely on a concept called 借景, shakkei, which means borrowed scenery. Deliberately opening parts of the house to an external view, gardens of various sizes would enter into view; utterly captivating in their silent serene beauty. I can sit and stare for hours in such a space.

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This concept has Chinese origins but clearly the Japanese have elevated it to a whole new level of artistic aspiration. As a Chinese, I often think to myself, what propels the Japanese to always adopt other societies’ cultural exports and then distill them into something so amazing? When Chinese borrow from other cultures, the typical result (of course I’m generalizing here) is usually something ultra efficient and functional. What creates this paradigm shift in mindset?

The mammoth wood firing kiln is a sight to behold. 8 chambers long, it is sometimes called a dragon kiln as it quite literally morphs into fire breathing beast when it stirs and wakes. Thousands of ceramic pieces can fit in there; with temperatures rising to 1350 degrees celcius. It is a hungry beast too – once in action, potters and their apprentices would have to serve it a constant supply of wood for hours on end, steadily raising the temperature in a test of patience and precision.

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No thermometer can help; potters discern with their naked eyes when to feed and when to wait. The magic happens right there – as the clay and glazes mate violently and permanently amidst the dancing flames – producing changes that even the potter cannot predict. Indeed, as a famous Japanese potter once mused – you don’t make the pieces, you receive them. I leave the museum feeling like I have received a great deal.

The gardens of Kyoto are meticulously pruned and the trees typically look like giant bonsai with branches growing at impossible angles and the graceful asymmetries that celebrate the eternal tension between man and nature. We are a little early for cherry blossom season, and there is anticipation in the air, with buds silently yearning to burst forth in the exuberance of new youth!

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Thomas goes to work and I take a long walk around Kyoto. Some of the places are familiar; some are new. As the tiredness wears in; an image pops into my mind. Yama-chan’s chicken wings! They are my favorite chicken wings in the world. Somehow I cannot find the shop. Thank goodness Sanjo-dori as a free wifi spot and I message Kenneth for help. With his precise instructions, I managed to find my happy place at last. Wings, here I come!

As I walk along the lovely Kamo river I remember how Kenneth and I spent almost every day during our previous trip walking along its banks at various points, helplessly captivated by its gentle, silent allure. So peaceful, so nourishing for the soul.

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Yama-chan is an Izakaya, where people come in groups to drink; and I am alone. I don’t care and sit myself at the counter. Ordering 5 wings and Ramune – that sorely missed sparkling lemon drink with a cute glass ball, I sit and wait in restless, eager anticipation.

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The Izakaya was playing nice Japanese pop music and behind me people were clinking their glasses. Then the wings came. OISHII!!! Again! I was plunged into those sweet juicy memories and dived into the wings before me. This is truly finger licking good. With surgical precision, I dissect every bit of the wings and remove all semblance of meat. When it came to wing 5, I was thinking – should I stop here or eat more?

Life is too unpredictable. Who knows when I would ever be back in Kyoto to Yama-chan? How long more before I eat this again? My hand shot up and I said ” one more order, please!” And thus went my dinner of 10 chicken wings and ramune. I am 100% fulfilled when I finally stagger to my feet to pay the bill. The waiter gives me an amused smile as he clears away my mountain of bones.

Life is good 🙂

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