Next on our route in Japan was Kyoto.
Prepared for the usual faffing and flapping in the subway stations, we left ridiculously early and thus spent a good 90 minutes sat on our bags and waiting for the train to arrive.
The Japanese bullet trains are really lovely and big and spacious. Plus they have a huge long nose at the front so they look pretty cool. They’re fast, and they arrive exactly on time every time. Very refreshing!
Kyoto is an historic town full of temples, gardens, and at occasional times in the year, geisha dances.
On arrival we found our hotel and were offered the choice of a tatami room or bed. (Tatami are the traditional Japanese mats on the floor that we stayed on for four nights in Tokyo.) We opted for the beds and were lead to our room, that had not one, not two, but THREE DOUBLE BEDS in it! All lined up in a big row to create one massive bed. Once assured we weren’t sharing we got a bit giddy jumping around. Certainly makes a change to bunk beds!
We then walked to the only theatre with shows on, which said the tickets were sold out online. We managed to secure tickets for the following day so we were really chuffed. As I mentioned, the geisha dances only happen a few times a year, so we were really lucky. And pleased, as we’d missed the sumo wrestling in Tokyo due to the season.
The rest of the day was spent eating (standard) and wandering around temples. We saw real geisha walking around. They are so incredibly elegant. Their rank is shown by the back of their neck, where an apprentice will have two triangles of bare skin, and a geisha will have one. In Kyoto they are called Geiko (geisha) and Maiko (apprentice.) Having read and been completely fascinated by Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” as a teenager, I had a bit of insight into the gruelling regime and practice that is necessary to become a geisha. So I was extra excited for the following days performance.
We were ushered into a large theatre, told not to take photos and waited for the curtain to rise.
We were up in the gods but we still had a good view. At first curtains to the sides of the audience rose to reveal ten musicians on either side. They were all oldish, and one side held traditional guitars, the other drums, and one musician had a wooden flute. I was very impressed when they began to play and the flautist didn’t struggle at all whilst wearing a wide belt to hold the kimono together. Impressive!
The music began, the guitarists playing and singing and the Geiko began to slowly walk towards the stage. There were around twenty of them, dressed in stunning peacock blue kimonos covered in embroidery. (I later learnt that the costumes take six months to make in the run up to the twice yearly shows. They have new costumes each year) Their bodies were painted white, they had their black hair up in elaborate hair dos and they moved entirely as one. I’ve never seen anything like it, they were incredibly coordinated and elegant. They seamlessly pulled fans out from their sleeves which were included in the dance. It lasted for an hour, and portrayed the four seasons. It’s a shame I could take any photos to show you, but it was a privilege to see such a high art form, and I’ll never forget it.
Next on our agenda was a 24 hour visit to Hiroshima. The city was pretty much flattened by the atomic bomb in 1945, and so most of the buildings are fairly new. We found our hotel, thanks to booking.com’s photo. There was no English on the building so we couldn’t find it by name! The owner spoke no English, so we spent a good ten minutes trying to communicate before realising that we couldn’t check in until 4pm. Not too much of an issue as we left our big bags in the foyer, but we had to lug our small bags around with us for the day. We somehow discovered a sight seeing bus that we could use for free with our rail passes. We sighed a sigh of relief. A day off the subway! Thank fuck!!
We made our way to the Hiroshima peace memorial park. Outside is the Atomic Dome – a building that was directly below the bomb when it was dropped and so was one of the only buildings that survived the blast. No one inside survived however. It’s a very poignant reminder of the city that once was.
The park surrounding the dome is full of memorials and statues. It has a very peaceful air to it, but at the same time it’s impossible to not dwell on what happened in Hiroshima. We headed into the museum, which told the story of the bomb. It was full of relics left over from the survivor: Scorched items of clothing, a child’s tiny bike, and very disturbingly.. Fingernails. I was left scratching my head at one point thinking “what is gained by displaying these!?” But for many of the items, they were literally all that was left of someone’s son, daughter, mother or father. Similarly like when we visited ground zero, and when I went to a German concentration camp, it was a day I’ll never forget, but there came a point when enough was enough and I found myself covered in goosebumps and feeling like I was on the brink of a migraine. We fast peddled it out of the park. On the way out there was a huge bell that you could ring to signal your desire for peace in the world and giving it a good clang felt like I was exorcising the demons.
Above is a statue in tribute to Sadako Sasaki who survived the blast aged two, but when she was eleven developed leukaemia as a result of the radiation poisoning. She decided to make 1000 origami paper cranes to demonstrate her desire for peace, but tragically died before she could complete the project. Her classmates finished the task. To this day there are millions and millions of paper cranes at the children’s memorial in Hiroshima.
I’m really glad to have visited Hiroshima. I still can’t understand….I don’t think anyone can EVER understand how politicians can use human life as pawns in their games.
Anyway, after Hiroshima, we were back on the train headed for Osaka. Osaka was a good stop off point on our way to Koyasan, and we were excited and dubious to be staying in a capsule hotel, something the Japanese are famous for!
The main worry on my part was that I was alone with the women and not with Tom. Pathetic, I know, but we’ve been together 24hours a day for the past seven months and it’s taken its toll!
We went to our separate floors to check out our capsules before bed.
You’re handed a locker key that corresponds with your bed number. In the locker is a towel and some beige pajamas, which everyone wears and makes you feel a bit like you’ve been institutionalised/ joined a cult. The main thing about the capsule is that it doesn’t have a door on the end, just a roll blind so it’s not too claustrophobic, but it does feel a little like you’re in a hostel dorm, I.e. You can hear everyone’s snores and splutters but with more privacy.
The hardest bit for me was actually getting in the pod. I was on the top shelf and it was really hard to get in and out, I constantly felt like I was on the brink of falling flat on my face when I was on the ladder. But luckily, no disasters there. The bathroom was another communal bathing job – so another naked sauna and spa pool before bed. It’s weird how quickly it becomes normal!
All in all, it was a fairly uneventful night. It felt very bizarre to be alone and to agree a meeting time in the morning. In the morning, I climbed up the stairs to the reception feeling immensely relived to see daylight. The women’s capsules were in the basement, and they did feel a little claustrophobic. The capsule hotel goes down as one of the weirdest places we’ve stayed.
The next day we were off to Koyosan, a sacred mountain. We got on the train, got chucked off the train and then had to leg it onto a different train… Lots of fun with your backpack on. Seriously. I love Japan, but understanding the trains is bloody stressful. I can totally see the appeal of a tour group holiday. Japan has been the first place on this trip where I’ve lost sleep over stress. Anyway….
After the first train, we changed onto another train and then onto a “cable car.” It was not a cable car, it was a funicular railway. This has happened so many times on this trip! I get excited to go on a gondola, but it’s not a gondola!
We finally arrived at the top of Mount Koya, and then hopped onto another bus in the centre of town. Koyasan is a good 5 degrees colder than the rest of Japan, which we were already finding cold compared to the rest of our travels. We headed to our accommodation : inside a Buddhist temple. I was really excited!
I’d read in the lonely planet that women shouldn’t touch monks, or be near them in case you accidentally brush them etc. so I was a little apprehensive that I’d make some kind of faux pas but I needn’t have worried. The monks were really friendly and welcoming. We were shown to our room and given some green tea. We felt incredibly lucky and excited to be staying in the temple. It was the most expensive night of the whole trip : £90 for the night, no food included. But it was so worth it, for such a wonderful experience.
We headed out into Koyosan, a tiny town that is crammed full of temples. We went to a huge Buddhist graveyard that feels like it’s in the middle of the jungle. It was freezing and beautiful. We watched lots of people praying. I walked into a small place of worship whilst Tom was at the loo, and was ushered through to a back room and given more green tea by another smiling monk. They seem to love plying us with tea!
Next we visited a few more temples, and then headed back to where we were staying. They had more communal bathing pools here and more funny Jedi outfits to wear to bed. I had my hot pool to myself which was really nice, and I was amused to hear that Tom had shared his pool with a naked monk! We had an early night because we were due to be awake very early to watch the monks ceremony in the morning.
We set our alarms for 6am and then headed to the temple for 6.30am. It was very cold. We could see our breath and had to take our shoes off inside, but in a way it added to the magic.
Inside the temple, it was a small room full of ornate decorations… Lots of gold. We were ushered in, where we sat down. We could see a monk in metallic robes sat cross legged at the alter with his back to us. He was moving herbs around and burning incense. I realise I sound completely ignorant here, but the explanations were in Japanese so I can only write what I saw. After a while another monk started banging a big gong just outside the room. He did it around 100 times and it was so loud that every strike made me blink! Not exactly the calm morning rituals I’d expected. The monks then began to chant. They all said the same words in a monotone, reading from scriptures and barely seeming to breathe. The effect was completely hypnotic. One monk stopped and started smacking some big cymbals together. Part of me thinks they enjoyed making a big racket to wake everyone up! One of the monks then came to invite everyone to take part in the ceremony. The explanation was in Japanese, and as Tom and I aren’t religious or Buddhist we decided to just observe…. We didn’t want to do anything wrong or cause offence. But we realised everyone else in the room had gone up to the alter and done something with some spices and holy water apart from us. Whoopsie. I honestly think it was best to just observe though. We were then taken on a brief tour of the temple then headed back to our room for some breakfast.
Our time in Koyasan felt like an enormous privilege, and a wonderful way to end our time in Japan. There have been many many moments in this trip that I’ll always think about for the rest of my life. When I’m stressed out, and not sleeping, and covered in eczema, I’ll think of those beautiful smiling and welcoming monks on top of a mountain in Japan.
We headed back to Osaka and then onwards to Thailand.
In summary, Japan has been truly awesome! It was one of the places I was most excited to visit and it lived up to expectations. Around every corner is something delightful, like a vending machine full of cold beer, or a person pushing their ten chihuahuas around in a buggy. There’s a wonderful sense of community here. The mundane is exciting to me, from the ridiculous music that played when you enter supermarket, or the fact that you can expect your toilet seat to be warm. It’s a place of contrast. People literally live on top of eachother and I’ve never seen more people in one place than in Tokyo. But then there’s the beautiful countryside, huge mountains covered in trees.
I’m already excited to go back one day.