Some days ago I almost died on the road. Twice. A bus sped through the pedestrian crossing, and a bike raced past the red light. But that's Shanghai for you and it's something that I've learnt to accept and navigate around. The city is rowdy, obnoxious, raw and vibrant. But there's no better place for a person to learn to survive in the 21st century metropolis than right in the middle of this beautiful chaos.
Despite the intense feelings I have for this city, sometimes I have to escape to a serene place where I can hear my own thoughts, preferably with a dose of fresh air and comfortable amenities. Some place where I feel okay with being disconnected from the online world because I'm far too distracted by nature. Which is why I found myself back in Kurokawa - a small hot spring village up in the mountains of Kyushu.
I saw a shiba inu right outside the first ryokan I stayed in – Ryokan Wakaba. She belonged to the owner of the place. Such a friendly little critter she was, basking in my attention as I scratched her head. Between the both of us I wondered who was happier being up here. I know I’ve missed this place tremendously.
It was good to be back.
Dinner was a quiet affair – a full course Kaiseki, each dish artfully arranged in its intricate pottery bowls and plates. I was ushered into my own little private dining room, which was a pleasant arrangement not necessarily found in other ryokans. There was a low table in the middle and I sat on the floor. I began with the first course – a grape-flavoured aperitif. As I worked my way through the deliberately tiny portions, I picked out a slice of red marbled raw meat sprinkled with spring onions, and dipped it into a sweet and salty soy sauce next to the bowl.
You know, Rei Kawakubo used to hire models of colour. When I watched her 80s runway shows, there were powerful black women strutting down the runway. The ones walking for her today are young white girls - each one with make up that made them unrecognisable from the last – as if they have become blank canvases for Rei to display her artwork on. In the age of social enlightenment across cultures (the good) intermingled with a competition for moral superiority (the bad), it seems like she’s going out of her way to remove herself from the discourse of identity politics.
I chewed the meat gingerly to savour its taste. Mmmm this is pretty soft for beef, and tastier too. I compared it to the other set of raw meat which I knew for sure was beef that I had to grill. How odd, they have slightly different marbling. I glanced at the menu for clues. Recognising a few Kanji words on it, I realised that I had just eaten raw horse sashimi, which happened to be a Mount Aso delicacy. To say that it was a thoroughly enjoyable surprise was an understatement.
I found myself on my laptop after dinner trying to pen down my thoughts. There was no better place to be doing some reading and writing, sitting on the tatami floor as the sounds of the river became my soundtrack for the night.
I stepped gingerly into the hot water after washing myself. There was no one else in this indoor bath. That’s always been the appeal of Kurokawa to me, never having to share a bath with more than 2-3 people at any one time. Too often I found myself alone, just the way I like it.
I scooted over to the far side of the bath, opening the window to let in some fresh air and watch the outside world stand still as I let steaming water warm me up. There was a bridge not too far away with a few people coming and going. The night view was serene with barely any light.
Is it a form of American Imperialism and arrogance when people point out cultural appropriation in fashion outside of the country? After all, non-Western societies did not share the same troubled relationship nor historical contexts as white people with other racial groups, even if Asia does grapple with its own respective versions of racism irrelevant to their arguments. Why are American liberals so eager to play the same blame game on the rest of the world where the contexts are vastly different? Why are non-Americans expected to conform to American sensitivities while many American liberals remain myopic to the histories and cultures outside of the West? I have seen smug Asian-Americans on their moral high ground telling Asians how to feel, how to behave. Your culture is being exploited, you must feel indignant and stomp your feet. I believe that every person has a right to feel offended as much as the right to not feel offended. To command one to feel otherwise comes across as another form of oppression.
I walked back to my room, ready to tuck myself into the futon bed that has been laid out for me earlier when I was having my dinner. It’s the little details like this that make lodgings in traditional ryokans so memorable.
I left Ryokan Wakaba after breakfast to have a bit of a stroll before checking in to a different one nearby called Ryokan Shinmeikan, but was distracted by a small café just a short walk away. I sat down with a steaming mug of black coffee, which I've only learnt to enjoy only recently, on a bench right outside the shop accompanied by a book that I was finishing. It was a William Gibson – a rather inappropriate choice considering the rustic, peaceful village setting. The one place I felt comfortable not being connected to cyberspace.
I’m addicted to my phone. It has to be with me at all times or I feel incomplete. It doesn’t matter if I couldn’t access the Internet. I’ve poured so much of my life, my memories, and my work into it that it’s become an extension of myself. Without it I feel like I’ve lost the use my thumbs.
I left the café to continue my walk. The roar of the river and the majestic evergreen trees guarded the peace and tranquility that permeated the village. Up in this mountain, Mother Nature commands respect from her visitors.
Masculinity, for all its fixation on power and dominance, is actually very much like its physical symbolism the testicles, i.e. fragile and must be protected at all cost. Every time masculinity faces a threat, whether it’s from words written by women, gender-bending clothes, laws that protect women and minorities misconstrued as infringement on men’s rights, angry males would retaliate in anger and violence, never mind that most of those issues are irrelevant to them personally. If anything the phrase ‘grow some balls’ would mean an increased surface area for exposure to pain and accidents. Sometimes humans don’t make much sense.
After my stroll, I went for lunch in this Japanese curry place that looked like a cross between a log cabin and a speakeasy. Rows upon rows of copper mugs were arranged on the shelves alongside dainty teacups. Their specialty was the horse meat curry, but I chose my annual dish that was black pork curry. As small as the village of Kurokawa was, it did not have a shortage of delicious food choices. From sashimi to udon, even desserts such as glutinous rice balls in sesame paste accompanied by the most delicious homemade pickled radish, there was nothing disappointing high up these mountains.
We humans are either too lazy, tired or distracted to fully engage in the pursuit of knowledge that would equip us with the tools to make the best decisions in our lives. The very act of earning sustenance leaves us physically and mentally drained, and we alleviate that fatigue by consuming material and experiential goods to distract ourselves, some of which are good, many of which are detrimental to our wellbeing. We are incapable of seeing the long-term implications of our actions, so we make decisions that do not maximise our welfare. Couple that with the irrationality of our emotions that rule our decision-making processes, it’s no wonder we are constantly doing a waltz with self-sabotage. This leaves us to depend on Leviathans to guide our lives. Whether we want to or not, we have learnt to trust that they would do what is best for us. These Leviathans used to be governments. Yet trusting them to do the right thing has not always yielded the most fruitful of outcomes, because governments consist of people who are prone to irrationality. As big governments become less trustworthy, corporations step in to fill up that growing need for a moral compass. They become the ones who guide our way of thinking, preferences, behaviour and patterns of consumption. We don’t trust them any more than we do most governments, but we have quietly resigned our privacy rights and self-control to them without putting up much of a fight.
Another short morning run, followed by half an hour of hot soak in the outdoor area. At half past seven in early winter morning, no one seemed to share my enthusiasm for an open-air bath, hence I found myself alone again, thankfully. This particular bath was what pulled me back to this ryokan. Beautiful roof covered a shallow stone pool, surrounded by sturdy bamboo trees. In the midst of the cold breeze I had never felt warmer than this, physically and mentally.
To be free of life’s troubles and the reality of human condition, even for an hour, is a luxury that I truly cherish. In the grander scheme of things, we don’t know how our act of consumption, no matter how well-meaning and selective, will benefit humanity on the whole. But we like nice things and pleasant experiences. I know I do. It feels good to be able to support smaller companies and individuals that continue to put forth their different ideas in an increasingly corporatised world. I say this with my fullest awareness as someone who wears Craig Green with Adidas, while using Instagram and Facebook to communicate with people from all over the world.
After my last breakfast in Kurokawa, I walked down to the bank of the creek, hoping to read a few more pages before I had to board the bus back to Fukuoka airport. This time it was a Murakami. The sky was slightly overcast. There seemed to be more tourists than yesterday. I kept glancing up at the looming evergreen trees that surrounded this area, knowing that I would miss this place as soon as I left. I hope to be back for another pilgrimage next year.