Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Kyoting II: miscellaneous

After a surprisingly sound night's sleep (I did use earplugs) I head out from the hostel in search of breakfast. I'll just nip into one of the cafes shown on the route. My plan is to wander through the Imperial Park down towards the centre of town, there to visit the Manga Museum and perhaps a kimono museum (I feel M-san would approve).

As I leave, the rain is falling. It seems as though Kyoto has decided to gently ease my transition back into British life by preparing appropriate weather for me. This isn't the torrential downpours of Kyushu, but a steady drizzle that leaves the world grey and washes away colour. I could be in Manchester. This is the weather of my childhood, and I am inured to it. I pull up my hood and stroll away, noting that everyone else is using an umbrella.

Oh hey there! Fancy seeing you here. Shame you're closed. This is the first sign of a board game I've seen in Japan.

Of the cafés en route to the park, all 100% turn out to be in the Japanese mode, serving hot rice or egg salads, and mostly closed. I turn into the park, which is deciduous and damp; it's very much like any number of British parks I've wandered through, only a bit cleaner. Strolling south, I pass one of the Imperial Palaces. Naturally, plebs are only permitted to look at the outside wall.

Quashing my Republican contempt as of zero use at this particular juncture, I continue through the park and head south. I briefly pause outside a Macdonald's, since I've had success before in using their wi-fi to navigate, hoping to locate a coffee shop so I can at least get a cuppa. Annoyingly, this turns out to be a wifi-less establishment.

It's about another twenty minutes before I finally find somewhere that will give me tea and something resembling what I consider breakfast. Inevitably, it is a Starbucks. But it's warm and dry, and will give me tea. Having done some research on their wi-fi, I plan my next move: food. As I walk out into another downpour, I give up and buy an umbrella.

I'd expected to spend most of the morning in the park, but with the weather so dull it just isn't worth it. Also, my MP3 player has run out of battery at some point, so walking is much less fun than usual, even if I weren't carrying a laptop. Before you ask, I'm carrying a laptop largely because it's my only good source of information, though also because I know from bitter experience that I get bored walking around for a whole day by myself, and my hostel is too inconvenient to return to during the day. This will turn out to be the correct decision, as I will use it repeatedly.

The Manga Museum

The next thing to visit is, of course, the Manga Museum. This is because SC had it circled on her map (I wouldn't know about it otherwise) and it's near the park, and it sounds kind of interesting. I wander over and pay my Y800, which is about £4 at the moment.

The museum proves fairly interesting. It has some runs-through of the history of manga, and some general information about manga, such as the production process. Some sections are clearly for would-be authors, including a hands-on demo of some manga-assisting software which you can buy in their shop (I forebore). It's a curious place because it combines being a manga museum and a preserved elementary school, so some rooms are full of manga, while others are the old headmaster's room preserved as it used to be. One room will have a display of visual special effects used in manga, while another contains old textbooks used by pupils in the 1920s.

One major disadvantage is that my reading is so poor. While most of the notices are in three or four languages, one of the museum's main draws is that it has an extensive collection of manga just to read. I read so slowly that it's really not worth pulling anything down, though I glance at a couple. I also discover that I don't have a pen, so I can't even write down the names of anything interesting I spot. There's a ban on photography in most parts of the museum, which is sort of inevitable, yet annoying. I can't help feeling that someone should sit down and enforce a common-sense rule on this sort of thing. Nobody's going to be stealing your work by taking a photo of a glass case containing one page of it alongside six other books, let alone a list of popular titles. Yes, that's a real example! There are suggested reading lists in a couple of places, and it struck me that in the absence of a pencil, I could take a photo and decipher the titles later. Alas, I was informed that this too was copyrighted, which frankly seems deeply unlikely, but never mind.

I did, however, manage a couple of shots in places where it is allowed.

For lunch, I wander around staring blankly at various restaurants. In most cases I can't even work out what they're selling, unless it's ramen. I feel like I've eaten enough ramen recently. Eventually, in a department store, I find something I've been vaguely intending to eat for a while: unadon. This is grilled eel on rice. And a rather spiffy one at that. It even comes with vegetables! Not many, admittedly, but still! This is cause for excitement.

It's definitely good, yet somehow I feel disappointed. What can I say, it had an awful lot of build-up, but when you get right down to it it tastes like grilled fish with rice.

Next, I stride one street over to the Nishiki market. It's a sort of famous market area or some such, mostly selling actual things that normal people need. It's quite interesting, but the combination of busyness and over-eager shopkeepers is a little offputting, so I don't linger too much. Also, most things are either for cooking (not really what I'm after) or souvenirs, and I have no space whatsoever for souvenirs at this juncture.

I do buy an apple though. Gotta get me them vitamins somehow.

I think this is just the skin from a big fish? Presumably there is a reason.

Dinner and no show

I wander up the road a bit and pay a brief visit to Higashi Honganji, a huge temple. As in, very big. It's sadly currently undergoing repairs, which in Japan frequently means erecting a sort of tent around the thing you're repairing. Observe this tent.

This is not a small building. No, sir.

After some thought, I decide that I’m going to need something to do in the evenings. It goes dark around 5pm and most things close fairly early, as typical for tourist attractions, so what I need is a show or concert. Hoping that Japanese helpfulness and efficiency extends to their tourist services, I head to the station.

It doesn’t.

Should you find yourself in Kyoto, seeking a means to while away the evenings without resorting to getting blind drunk in a dingy bar with some complete strangers, it is important that you do not ask Tourist Information, for they belie their name. Faced with the combination of a foreigner and a question more complicated that “where is this famous temple?”, an expression of mild panic comes over them.

Pointy brackets indicate Japanese dialogue.

ME: <Hi, I’m interested in plays or theatres in Kyoto this week.>
THEM: <Plays?> (twitches nervously)
ME: <Yes, you know… plays, events. Something to do in the evening.>
THEM: (Glance around wildly) <Ah, well, here’s a leaflet about Noh theatre. It’s in the afternoon.>
ME: <I was rather looking for something to do in the evening. Because everything’s closed, so it’s boring.>
THEM: <But traditional theatre is always in the daytime.>
ME: <Well, modern theatre is fine too. Or some kind of event. Just anything to do in the evening, really.>
THEM: <Colleague, colleague! Do you know about any plays? No? Um, there aren’t any.>
ME: <None? There aren’t any plays?>
THEM: <No, definitely, none at all.> (shakes head firmly) <No plays.>
ME: <I see. Thank you very much for all your help.> (bows politely, goes to internet)

The aforementioned free station internet (hah!) is now available, because I took the time this morning to register from my hostel room. This gets me a 3-hour use of the wifi, which doesn’t contrast particularly well with the free-forever wi-fi of Fukuoka, nor the many cities I’ve been to that give guests 24 hours of internet, but hey, it’s something. I soon realise that the only reason they’re offering three hours is that it will take that long for it to load a single webpage. “Please enjoy our high-speed internet”, my posterior.

And you know what, they were right. There is nothing to do in Kyoto in the evening Remarkably, the whole internet agrees. A few unkindred spirits offer up “fantastic bars!” or “best clubbing experience in Japan!”, but the only clubbing experience I’m interested in involves a stout cudgel and a selection of politicians dressed as baby seals.

This is probably not actually true. Most cities have a thriving scene of amateur entertainment, shows and gigs going on, but Tourist Information tends not to know about those, and if they only get mention in local papers, or on the websites of venues you don't know exist, in another language, there's not much you can do about it. I try the actual theatre (handily adjacent to the station) but apparently there is nothing whatsoever happening in December. It’s going to be a long week, with a choice for the evening between sitting in a draughty room with no furniture, or finding pretexts to linger in coffee shops miles from my hostel before scrambling for the last train. Roll on the weekend...

Mooching through the vast station complex, I discover an Italian restaurant. It seems like a strange idea to eat at an Italian restaurant in Japan, but then I decide that it’s not significantly weirder than doing so in Liverpool. Moreover, I am sort of fed up of Japanese food, having eaten little else for six months. I’m still not quite sure how the Japanese market manages to sustain having a dozen or more restaurants in immediate proximity, many of them serving what seem to me (in my ignorance) to be very similar dishes.

I suppose one difference is that Japanese restaurants seem to serve (say) Variations on Ramen, or Variations on Curry, or Tempura’d Stuff. I’m more used to restaurants having one option apiece from a wide assortment of meals, so British restaurants tend to have a menu like: fish and chips, one curry, chilli and spuds, broccoli stilton bake, pasta in sauce, bacon and pineapple. This means you have a lot of types of food available, but limited choice within them. The Japanese arrangement gives you a lot more control over the specifics, but requires you to select a type of cuisine first.

The carbonara I select is perfectly decent, as good as many Italian meals I’ve had in the UK.

Since the night is yet young (which, for some reason, I briefly spelled “yongue”) I move on to a nearby café, where I get some coffee and a small cake. They have the orange croissants that I’ve grown particularly fond of in my time here. Sadly neither wireless nor sockets, but my battery will last an hour, and if I set out to the hostel around 8pm I don’t have too much time to kill.

I also take the time to climb to the top of the station, because let's be clear here, Kyoto station is a colossus of a building eleven stories tall. You could fit several office blocks inside the main concourse, or so it seems to me.

I don't know why this one looks like daytime. I took it at the same time as the others, but my camera is clearly trying to adjust.

That's a pretty big tree there on the second floor, even as seen from this escalator.

Still only about halfway up the escalators. Not looking so big now, is it?

Oh hey, nine-storey buildings. Didn't see you down there.

Got a ticket for my destination

At this point I want to try the actual railway route to my hostel, which I know exists despite the professed ignorance of the people in the information booth downstairs. Having managed to scrounge a spot of signal along the way, I discover that what I need to do is take a normal railway one stop, then take the subway. This is not remotely complicated, and I really cannot for the life of me see why the folks didn't just tell me that information. It would have saved me lugging my own bodyweight in luggage down the road for fifteen minutes.

The reason I want to try it out now is twofold. Firstly, I've done a lot of walking and feel justified in taking a train back. More importantly, I want to know how practical it is as a return route on Friday, when I travel on to my final Japanese stop in Osaka, from where I fly home on Saturday. I don't want to repeat my luggage-hauling trick, so I need to know whether I can conveniently take the train back to Kyoto station, or need to use one of the other options, from buses to luggage delivery (my hostel offers the latter).

It turns out that the most complicated part of the process is finding the ticket machine at the intermediate stop of Toufukuji, since you need to find a little bit of paper above the normal ticket machine (which is for mainline only, not subway), then guess which of several staircases it might refer to, and ignore some of the other words entirely as being misleading. Essentially, what it means is, "go down the stairs to your platform". I do so, buy a ticket and get the train. It's a lot faster than I thought it might be, too. The whole journey takes about 30 minutes, including waiting time. I really, really do not understand those travel information people. There is no way that any other possible option, including the bus, could have been a better alternative. Maybe a private chauffeur?

A snack and a realisation

As I get back to my hostel, I discover two things. One: there is a large party going on in what I previously thought to be the next establishment, but now realise is a downstairs room in the hostel. I have no idea what significance this has, who the people are, or if I'm supposed/allowed to get involved. I don't, though I do confirm quickly that the noise of the party penetrates the entire building.

Two, I find a plate of sushi in my room. This is a little surprising. A note informs me that it's a special present for guests staying several nights, made by a neighbouring sushi place. I believe SC actually met the sushi chef when she was staying here. The problem is, I have no idea when in the past 12 hours this sushi was deposited. Also, I have already eaten plenty. Cue agonising. After a while, I realise that the frigid temperature of my room will have preserved the rice perfectly well for a few hours, and decide to sample it. I eat four of the eight pieces, which seems like a reasonable compromise. They are fine, but clearly not completely fresh. I carefully wrap the rest and bin it in the kitchen.

This leads to me realising, or perhaps accepting, something a bit dispiriting. That is: I am not adventurous.

I'd like to think of myself as adventurous, although I don't think I ever have particularly. Most people probably would. It's a nice thing to be. But in truth, I am not. I am unadventurous, even conservative. I like to know ahead of time what will happen; to plan, to prepare, to anticipate. I don't like surprises.

In this particular example, I would really much rather not have been given a free plate of sushi. After all, I didn't ask for a plate of sushi; I did not expect one. If I had, I might have planned around it, although to be honest I'd probably have rather not had it anyway, because then I'd have had to plan around it. Much more comfortable to choose for myself what to eat, and eat that.

It goes rather deeper though, as even today reveals. One of the reasons I have trouble finding places to eat is that I don't want to just eat anywhere, anything. I have never really liked trying new food, unless it be a slight variation on something I already like - I don't know what to expect. After six months in Japan, the vast majority of Japanese cuisine is still pretty mysterious to me, because I cook for myself and tend to pick simple recognisable dishes from the menu. That's why I have, several times during my stay, given up on local restaurants and just gone into a McDonalds I passed, because I might not like it (I don't) but it's food, I know what to expect, the stress is minimal.

Similarly, my first thought on finding the party going on was an urgent hope that I was not expected to get involved, because I don't really like parties. I'm not particularly a fan of meeting new people, except in fairly controlled situations. I don't mind my friends introducing me to people, but I certainly wasn't going to go and sit in a pub, where people might talk to me. That's uncomfortable.

I've spent six months living in another country, mostly speaking another language, navigating most things through an unfamiliar culture, travelling to new places on my own - but I still fundamentally want order, predictability and the familiar. How very dull of me.


  1. "I still fundamentally want order, predictability and the familiar"
    .... and yet you decided to move to Japan for six months :-)

    1. Hey, I never claimed to be consistent about it...

      Also, your distance allowed you to miss out on the vast amounts of planning and research that went into this excursion. One of the reasons I wrote this blog in the first place was that I realised nobody else seemed to have a blog about being at GenkiJACS, and that I'd have very much liked to read one before making a decision.

      In a weird way, though - as you may have found yourself? - there's a surprisingly limited difference between moving to a new city far away, and moving to a new country. A lot of the difficulties are the same, in my experience.