Last time we were in Japan, the house we rented in Kyoto was probably my favourite place to stay; it was nestled in the charming cobblestone streets beside a small river (which hosted several herons), our neighbours were separated by thin bamboo fences and there was this sweet old lady who sold traditional Japanese sweets at the end of the lane. Combined with the tatami floors and sliding paper doors, it was quintessential old Japan.
This time around we were a little less fortunate in our choice of accommodation. We were charmed by the few pictures on airbnb, and the description of a house surrounded by nature with a nearby bamboo grove and views of the forest. However, we didn’t realise it was a half hour walk to the nearest convenience store, or the major bus stops, down a very steep hill and through winding back alleys. Without the benefit of a pocket wi-fi, it was a terrifying journey to try and find our way to a main road to buy food and find our way home in the dark. However, Craig lent us his spare wi-fi from his accommodation and by the end, I found it quite charming (even enjoying the long walks and the challenge of the hill). Over time, the sakura trees, the beautiful neighbourhood shrine (apparently cared for by gigantic koi and a patient heron) and the numerous tanooki made me realise how beautiful an area it was. It also forced us to catch buses, which turned out to be a delightful experience in itself (as I bore witness to a 12-year-old girl who used her smart watch to send photos to her New 3DSXL. Oh Japan).
One of my favourite places in Kyoto was Gion, so full of people (especially tourists) and so full of life. Beth and I returned to that enchanting Baskin Robbins for Easter special ice cream, we drummed in the arcade (next to some seriously hardcore guys who I’m pretty sure were actual taiko drummers because they brought their own sticks) and I bought a whole bunch of Japanese merch: a coin purse, a carry bag and so many tabi. We also hit up the Uniqlo there and bought half a new wardrobe, always a pleasurable experience.
Visiting the Inari Shrine and climbing Mt Inari was also an experience I wasn’t able to have last time. It was such an enjoyable challenge to physically climb a mountain, and I was delighted at how quickly the crowds died off when it got slightly challenging. It was so special moving through those thousands of toori and then off the beaten tracks into the quieter paths through the forest. Some of my favourite memories were stumbling across semi-hidden shrines, a locked cabin, a path through the bamboo and a hidden bloom of sakura amidst the canopy.
Of course the highlight of this section of the trip was a visit to Universal Studios Japan, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter therein. You can read a more detailed blog of the latter here. As for the rest of USJ, it was quite a wonder in itself. The energy was high (although we did stumble across a few people napping, in the midst of thousands, during a very noisy parade where paper was being shot from cannons nearby them) and there was much to see and do! True of any theme park, the wait times were lowest just before closing.
The thing I loved most (apart from the WWoHP) was by far the Resident Evil Escape Room 2. It was much more of a production than I expected, with very hot actors playing badass commandos or terrorists, with real fire and some pretty incredible costume and make-up work (she started cutting off his ear!). The puzzles themselves were super fun, though the zombies didn’t scare me much because I knew that they weren’t actually allowed to touch me so I didn’t take them seriously when they stormed down the corridor, just moving so I was out of sight so I didn’t waste any time avoiding them. As for the puzzles, set across four floors (though we weren’t able to access two of them initially), they were way harder than Craig and I were capable of solving. Out of respect for the creators, I won’t share any of the solutions here, but suffice it to say it needed some extremely clever thinking, some keen observation skills, and some manipulation of the apparently mundane props you were given to point to subtle clues. In the end, about a dozen of the hundred people solved all the clues. Craig and I couldn’t even get past the first (and easiest) puzzles for the “alpha” password. (Incidentally, if anyone out there has solved the six clues for alpha and can tell me how to solve the last one, I would be forever in their debt because even now it’s driving me crazy.)
We also took the liberty of visiting an old haunt while in Osaka; Hooters was actually a lot better than I was expecting. Being married now, the appeal of alcohol and large-breasted women, that smoky den where a guy could spontaneously drop to the floor and do push-ups with a cigarette in his mouth, no longer struck me in quite the same way. To my surprise, it was actually really nice having a conversation with the waitress who went out of her way to have a longer chat with us, and it was probably the most Japanese we’d ever spoken in one sitting. It turns out that Maco-chan left shortly after we visited two years previous, and when we joked about seeing Kae-chan in two more years time she told us that she’d have started her new job as a flight attendant for Japan Airlines and she’d see us in the air instead. I was so glad she got the job she set her heart on!
It was also a pleasure to return to Ginkakuji and the Philosopher’s Path, this time with Bethwyn who was feeling well enough to join us. I became profoundly thoughtful in the quiet wabi-sabi gardens of the Silver Pavillion, and delighted as we strolled down the tetsugaku no michi. I returned to the second-hand kimono store and acquired a yukata, obi and hakama to my great delight (where an obaa-san came up to me and said “Kakkoi!” while I was trying some stuff on). The cute river-side cafe we stopped at for lunch was visited by a guy in a white suit with a TV crew who agonised over their food-porn shots, and to my amazement as I passed him to find a bathroom, he said in perfect English and with dulcet tones to rival George Takei’s, “Through here, on the right.”
It was with a surprisingly heavy heart we left Kyoto, and in a perfectly Japanese fashion, too. Our host had called a taxi for us to pick us up at 7am, and at 7:00 exactly I slid open the front door to see if they had arrived yet. Standing in the rain with the boot of his car open, umbrella at the ready, was our taxi-driver. I hastily got the rest of our stuff together and he took the luggage out of my hands to load himself, and then covered the frame of the car door so we didn’t bump our heads as we climbed into the back seat. With his crisp white gloves, he took us directly to the station in record-time, and after he had unpacked our things, he took his hat off and bowed deeply to farewell us. Nothing describes Japan so perfectly as this, where almost everyone I’ve met has taken deep pride in their job (no matter how modest) and put their heart and soul into doing the best work they could.
Stay tuned for our next leg of the adventure, this time into Seoul.