I sat by the window typing these words, accompanied by the gentle roar of the river blending with the harmonious beats of Bonobo. Compared to Tokyo, the air up in the mountains of Gunma was cool and fresh even at the height of summer. My travel companion was fast asleep. Midnight, the world was adrift and at peace. I dug deep into my memory and wrote.
Gunma Adventure - Part One
Words don’t come easily to me, though incoherent thoughts are relentless. We had spent the day on a bullet train and two buses, making our way from Tokyo to a remote onsen up the mountains of Gunma. I had never been here, but I held on to the faith that the ryokan and mountains would be worth the stress of the journey.
One aspect of myself that I constantly try to improve on is time management while traveling. And there’s no better way to do that in a country as pedantic as Japan. I thought I had given ourselves enough time to make our way from our lodgings in Omotesando Hills to Tokyo station where we would catch a bullet train, but we got carried away loading up on lunches and snacks. As a result, we had to race across subway stations, probably did a hundred meter sprint midway, while both of us were lugging 20kg and 30 kg of goods respectively. No guessing who packed the heavier one. I lost my grip on the luggage handle mid-sprint as we were transferring from the subway to the overground. It cracked upon hitting the pavement. Stairs had to be climbed, people to apologise to. Several station gates through Tokyo station and profuse sumimasens later, we caught the right shinkansen with two minutes to spare. As we took our seats on the duck-billed train - struggling to catch our breath - my companion blurted out, “HIIT has nothing on this.”
End of Gunma Adventure - Part One
Kyoto Adventure - Part One
As someone who travels quite often to Japan, I had wondered why I hadn’t gone to Kyoto almost immediately. It was after all the ancient capital of the country, now its cultural capital, where the concept of wabi sabi was born. If you have been reading my essays you will know how much this philosophy permeates the way I think and consume; the beauty of imperfection, the ageing process of people and material goods, the signifiers of usage - these are all embodied in the clothes I wear, the wares I sell, the photographs I take.
I decided to give Kyoto a try when I found out that Japan’s low-cost carrier Peach Airlines has a Shanghai-Kansai route at a relatively affordable cost, though it involved taking a six am flight. I had no idea what to expect, other than a vague idea of the cultural significance of the city. My motto in life has evolved to “have zero expectations from new experiences in order to avoid disappointment”.
Kyoto itself is by and large an industrial town. Sitting in the train that whisked me away from Kansai airport on an hour-long (or was it two?) journey, the view outside wasn’t what I would call picturesque. Yet it’s still quintessentially Japan - angular suburban homes intermingled with well-pruned greenery, elderly people tending to a patch of gardens at a random car park, chimney stacks not too far off in the background, small practical cars weaving in and out of narrow streets. The view remained unchanged even when the train pulled into Kyoto station. A touch of familiarity mingled with the excitement of arriving in a new city; PA system announcing train departures and arrivals in a friendly voice, sararimans careering around dawdling tourists trying to navigate the complexities of a large Japanese train station. As I dragged my typically heavy suitcase from the station to my Airbnb lodging along the city’s systematic grid-like road system, I began to notice the exceptionally old age of Kyoto homes - ubiquitous wooden structures bore the mark of ancient history, snuggled between modern flats.
The closer I walked to the central district, the older the homes became. The city was a lot easier to navigate around than Tokyo as the roads were named numerically relative to the Kamo River that runs from the north to the south - the beating heart of Kyoto. I passed by a cafe that overlooked the embankment, which I knew would become one of my favourite working spots.
More old wooden homes built alongside narrow streets. I finally arrived at my Airbnb somewhere in a tiny block of flats. I did my best to carry my 20kg suitcase up a narrow flight of stairs. I keyed in the code for the door to my rented flat, opened the door, and saw the tatami and futon bedding arrangements. Minimal, clean and cosy. I knew I’d sleep well that night.
End of Kyoto Adventure - Part One