The most startling thing about Yas is her strong British accent.
Most Japanese don’t speak English well; I got by in many parts of Japan using mostly hand gestures and a few rudimentary words in English and Japanese. Yet here was this tiny, wonderful Japanese specimen going “Cheerio!”. She studied in the U.K., you see, and was trained in the dark arts of English pronunciation. Even at the end of our time together, I’d still crack up when she said stuff like “Blimey, that’s brilliant!”
The next thing you can’t help but notice is what a positive force of nature she is. All smiles, a joy to be around and holding a wonderful outlook on life. At some point in our trip I remarked how lucky I was to have such perfect weather during my travels in Japan. “Sunny boy!” she called me, which is a nickname for someone that the sun likes. “Sunny girl!” I called her, because that’s the perfect description of her disposition.
In my mind, we first met as she was brushing her teeth in minimouse pyjamas, humming Aladdin songs to herself. In truth, we met a few hours earlier in the common area of the Ryokan hostel we were staying at. In both cases, something clicked and we decided to spend the next day exploring Arashiyama (the western outskirts of Kyoto) together.
The bus to Arashiyama took us most of the way and we made the last couple of kilometers on foot. It was a beautiful day, and the area felt more like a town than a big city. We walked past fields, houses, schools and train tracks. Crossing one of the area’s canals, we stumbled upon this pretty fella, living the easy life right in the middle of the city:
We rented somewhat strange looking and cumbersome bicycles just outside the train station in Arashiyama and headed towards Monkey Park, the sun on our backs and a cool breeze in our faces. Unfortunately, the camera stayed mostly in my backpack (for protection), so I took relatively little photos of the sights that day.
Monkeys are roaming freely on a hill nearby. To get there, we left our bicycles at the bottom and hiked 10 minutes uphill. At the top, dozens of monkeys were monkeying around, socializing and interacting with the curious humans.
The monkey prince:
The monkey king:
Tenryuji is the main temple of the Arashiyama district, ranked first among the city’s Zen temples. The buildings were repeatedly lost in fires and wars over the centuries but the garden survived in its original form.
As we passed the two guys on the left, I overheard one of them comment that soon the sun will be blocked by clouds and the view will be very different. I said to Yas: “See those two guys there? They’re good with a camera, notice how they do [some stuff]”.
Not 15 seconds later, they come over to us and tell me I’ve got a nice camera and technique… We chat for a bit, then the leftmost guy recommends that I get myself a certain 45mm lens. I literally pull that exact lens out of my jeans pocket. He laughs and asks if I have the 12mm lens in my other pocket – I didn’t.
Long story short, he let me snap a few photos with his 12mm lens. Compare the following capture with the previous one, notice the larger field of view. A wide lens is definitely missing from my arsenal.
Back to my own lenses:
There was a magnificent painting of a dragon spread across the many entrances of the temple. Here’s the only picture I found of it (online – not my own):
From the inside it looks like this [photo taken from japan-guide.com]:
Jojjakoji and a quick photoshoot
As we were heading to Jojjakoji, Yas got an important phone call (she landed a new job!), and I took the opportunity to snap some photos of her (I’ve been itching to do it all day… The girl is unaware of how gorgeous she is).
- When entering a temple
- perform the cleansing ritual
- In many of the temple entrances, there are [hidden?] spray bottles with alcohol, which you can use to clean and disinfect your hands. I’ve never noticed them until I saw Yas use them.
- The entrance to temples is almost always made of stairs leading to a Tori gate. It is customary to go up on the left side and go down on the right side. Only the gods take the middle path.
- Bow when entering and exiting a temple to show respect
- How to pray
- Take off your hat or cap
- Throw your coin in to the offertory box. They say that what’s in your heart is important, not the amount, but many times I’ve seen signs asking for a certain amount.
- Ring the bell, to get the god’s attention
- At the shrine:
- Make two deep bows
- Make a wish in your heart (most people put their hands together in front of them for this part)
- Clap twice, not fast
- Make one more deep bow
|Japanese||How to read the Japanese||Translation|
|さいた さいた チューリップのはなが||Saita saita churippuno hanaga||Tulips in bloom and bloom|
|ならんだ ならんだ||Naranda naranda||In lines, in lines|
|あか しろ きいろ||Aka shiro kiiro||Red, white, yellow|
|どのはなみても きれいだな||Donohanamitemo kireidana||Every flower in sight is beautiful|
In exchange, I taught her the Hebrew “Nad-ned, nad-ned / red, ale, ale vared”, a song about swinging. Is it a coincidence that the Israeli song is about action, while the Japanese song is about appreciating beauty?
And a selfie 🙂
The idea to spend this day on bicycles was a huge success. I still have vivid memories of crossing fields, navigating urban areas and passing by pedestrians on our way from temple to temple. Other highlights from the day were Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street and Otagi Nenbutsuji Temple (sadly, no pictures).
A traditional(?) dinner
[Eating Okonomiyaki (Japanese Pizza)]
The night before, I walked by a very traditional restaurant/tavern near my hostel. Packed wall to wall with happy, noisy locals, it was obvious that this place was not intended for tourists. I got the impression that my presence would actually lower the spirits as people would try to be more dignified in front of a foreigner. I spent a minute observing the relaxed, communal atmosphere from the outside, and went on my way.
Imagine my excitement, just 24 hours later, as Yas led me confidently inside. The atmosphere was even better than the day before: Everyone sat on the floor along low, wooden tables. People were drinking beer, talking to each other across tables, laughing and sometimes shouting things to the chef. Ties were untied, etiquette put aside – there was an obvious “end of the day” vibe.
By the time we got to our seats, most of the room knew us by name and wished us a pleasant evening. Yas was being extremely social (everybody liked her immediately), and I did my best to follow suit: I used my very limited vocabulary and some English to tell the people around us about our day and my travels so far, and how wonderful I thought their city was. I used the opportunity to perform the Japanese children’s song that Yas taught me. A sudden hush fell over the place as I sang the first verse in an unsure voice, but by the second verse almost everyone was singing along with me. Yes, it was awesome.
We ordered some food and warm sake, and raised our glasses together with the nearby tables (Kampai!). Remembering that it was customary that no one should fill their own glass, I filled Yas’s glass as she filled mine. I caused a slight cultural shock by drinking my cup in one gulp (was expecting the others to do the same), and explained it away as my Russian heritage acting out… Playing to my strength, I ordered more Sake and so did everyone else, and before long we were all drunk (though me least of all – again, Russian heritage ;)).
[Shaky cam evidence]
A war of gifts
At some point the guy sitting to my back took out a brand new Japanese toothbrush, covered with ornaments and intricately painted, and presented it to me as a gift. I had no idea how to respond… I asked him several times if it was indeed for me. I didn’t know the etiquette for accepting gifts so I simply bowed deeply and accepted it, putting it very carefully inside my bag.
Several minutes later, I pulled out a painting of the Philosopher’s path that I bought the day before as a souvenir for my parents. Holding it ceremoniously before the same guy, I told him the story of how it was painted, and that I sat with the painter and observed his work for a long time, in the shade of the canal. He tried to turn down the gift several times before finally accepting. I must have done something right, because from that moment on everyone in the room grew even nicer to us (sending us plates of food, etc).
As we were leaving, after saying many goodbyes to our hosts and new friends, a man from the far corner of the room came over and quietly gave me a beautiful Japanese fan. This time I knew what to do and tried to turn down the gift a few times before accepting. I almost broke my neck bowing.
Finally, it was time for a much harder goodbye – Yas was moving to another hostel to continue her vacation. She thanked me for a wonderful day – planning the bicycle tour and showing her the restaurant (she said that even for Japanese people this kind of atmosphere is rare). Yas, I’m not sure I made myself clear that night, but thank you for what became one of the best days of my trip; Your company turned these experiences from great to unforgettable.
Note: We would meet again the day before I left Japan, this time in Tokyo (Yas’s hometown).