Kyoto is the former capital of Japan and is famous for an abundance of intact original shrines and temples (many elsewhere were bombed in WWII/destroyed in fires/earthquakes and so are modern reconstructions). We visited a few of the more popular ones, but they are always so busy, and there is really no need to do any special detours to see shrines and temples in Japan. We would ride past so many out on the road, often small ones tucked away up hills or between houses, and these were more enjoyable to visit as they were actually quite peaceful. But when in Rome and all that…. we walked around Higashi-ji (biggest), Kinkaku-ji (gold-est) and To-ji (tall-est) temples, Fushimi shrine (most orange gates) and a few others that we happened to pass by. I think we also went to a red one, it’s hard to keep track. Amongst all of this history, the station building shows the other side of the city – a modern glass structure that entertained us with a huge staircase that lit up with animated pictures.
Another reason for visiting Kyoto was to do a talk to a group of Japanese university students. We spoke to a class studying basic level English and had plenty of questions fired at us about cost, best places, food etc. Our two favourite questions were probably “how close have you come to death?” and for the first time on this trip “where are your husbands?” Quite different to the primary school kids.
One afternoon in Kyoto I was in the Starbucks queue (getting water, we are still not going to big chain places) and suddenly everyone’s phone had a message alert at the same time. It was like something from a film, they all made the same sound, and everyone took their phone out and looked at it simultaneously. It was one of the most surreal things I havhe ever experienced. About 2 seconds later the ground started moving. It was an earthquake text alert. Probably the second most surreal thing I have ever experienced. For over ten seconds the ground shook – I had a mild panic for a millisecond then realised nobody seemed to care, they all put their phones away and carried on staring at their coffee, and my water bottle was filled during the shaking with the skill of an air hostess during turbulence. This is life in Japan. It was a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in the west of the country, which felt like 3.0 to us in Kyoto over 300kms away. The locals might have taken it in their stride but it was a scary reminder to us foreigners that nature is a powerful beast.
We had heard that Kurama, a small village about 20km north of Kyoto in the mountains, has an annual fire festival on 22nd October, the day we would happen to be leaving Kyoto. Who doesn’t want to experience a fire festival? That’s also what about 10,000 other people thought. On our way out of the city we were stood outside a supermarket and heard someone shout “Debs and Jo” from a car window. It’s strange that when you first leave home, every time you hear someone shout something that might be your name you turn round only to remind yourself that you are away from home and nobody knows you, of course they are not shouting you. After over a year we are now tuned out to any shouting – who would know us? So it was strange that someone actually did. In the car was a primary school child from the British School in Tokyo who had been in our presentation. We are famous in Japan! Almost.
We arrived in Kurama just before 3pm as we wanted to get our loaded bikes in before the roads around the village closed. All of the houses had piles of wood or large torches ready to be set on fire later, and there were young men wandering round in traditional outfits (read: practically nothing). As it got dark the crowd grew and by 6pm things were starting to be set on fire and the place was packed. In a country where health and safety rules are rarely bent – for example, Tokyo has an Eiffel Tower replica which has to be painted orange and white, like all the masts in Japan, to meet health and safety requirements – it seemed a little risky to have so much fire on a narrow street of old wooden houses surrounded by forest, but maybe that’s just me being picky. Every policeman in the Kyoto region was on hand to control the crowds, and so you couldn’t actually stand and watch what was going on but had to walk (very slowly, 10,000 people remember) around a cordoned off loop. About 30% of this was in front of the interesting stuff, the rest was around the back of the village where you couldn’t see anything. It was all quite odd and very busy, and we didn’t see much until about 9pm when most people got back on the train to Kyoto. Then it got interesting as we could see the chanting, the marching, the carrying of fire torches and other crazy things. It was quite an incredible thing to witness.
About 10.30pm we managed to get back to our bikes and started to think about where we would camp. First choice was north of the village in the forest, but we had seen bear signs and the odd English-speaking local said “bear!” as soon as we mentioned we were sleeping in a tent. Not being a fan of camping with bears we were just wondering what to do when a traditionally-dressed local saw our bikes and shouted “beer” (much better than bear) so we spent the next hour sitting drinking beer and having a strange conversation with two guys in strange outfits in mime and bits of English. As soon as a young person passed by they would be grabbed, shoved in front of us and instructed to translate for a while, and only released from their embarrassment when the next potential translator arrived. When we said we were from Leicester we received the reply of “champions!” (while pointing at his foot) and “Shinji Okazaki” – it’s not just in Italy where our city can now be identified by football fans. Another guy, who turned out to be a chef, brought out a plate of sushi which was amazing as we had mistakenly assumed that there would be food available at the festival (maybe that would be a health and safety problem) and had only eaten a jam sandwich since lunch. There was just about time to witness some more chanting and fire carrying and then at 1am we finally escaped and found a patch of grass under the train line for our tent (hopefully away from the bears, but we hung our food anyway) wondering why we were bothering for four hours sleep. But the evening as a whole was well worth the lack of sleep that followed.
After a 5am start we rode with our eyes barely open back through Kyoto via the famous bamboo forest and the less famous kimono forest. Being up early we beat the crowds for once and enjoyed some peace and quiet. An uneventful 50km ride through busy suburbia (there is no separation between towns at all in this part of the country – one just blends into the other in an endless stream of supermarkets, car garages, convenience stores etc) took us to Mike and Tomoko’s house. Mike had cycle toured lots himself and as soon as we arrived said the magic words – “you probably want some snacks” – and that’s it, we were settled in for a few days.
Mike and Tomoko drove us out to Dreamton, an English style theme village where the eccentric owner has built English-looking buildings and covered the place with English trinkets, including pub signs, other antiques, and a wedding dress shop. Naturally. It was all very bemusing and a lot of fun. We had afternoon tea in the Pont Oak cafe where the toilet has a picture of Wills and Kate on the wall, cut out to look like it is a photo that was maybe taken of them while they were visiting. It was fun to eat scones and lemon cake and drink Earl Grey, although Bezza would be disappointed that it wasn’t a lemon drizzle. That evening we had our first conveyor-belt sushi experience, which was all the better for being with people who could explain what is was that we were eating.
Chatting to Mike and Tomoko helped us finalise plans for our last week or so in Japan. We were tired of busy, heavily trafficked roads surrounded by buildings, and set out to find some quiet scenic roads on the island of Shikoku.
Thanks to Kevin, Rob, Kurama’s Shinji Okazaki fans, and Mike and Tomoko.