12 June 2017
I woke on our final morning in Kyoto cursing my life and the stiff-pouring bartender of AF Jam Bar, whose praises I’d been singing the night before. It wasn’t the world’s worst hangover, but it sure wasn’t how I had wanted to begin the day! A shower and a hearty breakfast at the hostel cafe helped, and before long I was somewhat more put together and ready to face Kyoto with my friends.
Luckily that day turned out to be one filled with peace, beauty, and contemplation. First, we visited an art gallery that was showing the work of Takahiro Hara, a local Japanese artist. We had found out about the show because Takahiro Hara happens to be the father of one of the students at the language school where my friends and I work. We didn’t know what to expect, but figured we would take advantage of this happy coincidence and check out the show.
The artwork we saw blew me away. The collection was of paintings, mostly large scale, and all rendered in the most incredible detail. Every aspect was perfect, except there were little hints of imperfection, which only added to the overall beauty of the paintings, such as a painting of a woman where her hair and tank top had been exquisitely captured, but her hair was a bit disheveled and the strap of the top was twisted. My favorite was the first painting in the gallery, a long, horizontal nude with a graceful pose. The tone of the skin was so well-captured, it almost looked like a photograph, except the top right corner of the background had been left unfinished, with a small amount of bare canvas peeking through. There is no way that was an accident. The artist had to have left it unfinished intentionally, as if to remind the viewer that what they are seeing isn’t real life at all, but merely a painting. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes! Take a look at Takahiro Hara’s work for yourself here.
Next we took a short train to Fushimi Inari, one of the most famous locations in Kyoto and an icon of Japan. Even if you don’t recognize the name, you are familiar with Fushimi Inari, the mountain lined with seemingly endless rows of vermilion torii gates. These red gates can be found at the entrance to every Shinto shrine, and mark the transition from the profane to the sacred. Most shrines have just one, but at Fushimi Inari there are thousands leading up and down the mountain and branching off to dozens of smaller shrines. It is common for the gates to be sponsored by a business related to the specific shrine in the hope of bringing prosperity to the business, so they also function as a sort of advertising.
Sometimes when you visit a place so iconic, one that you have seen represented countless times in photos or film, the actual place pales in comparison to your expectations. Not so with Fushimi Inari. This was actually my second time visiting it, and it was just as magical, otherworldly, and transcendent as the first time. My companions and I took our time, and spent hours going up the small mountain, passing through nearly every gate, pausing for contemplation at the smaller shrines and rest stops.
Fushimi Inari is also a place that gets better the longer you spend there. Leading up to the mountain are rows of shops and food stalls that are festive and fun; make sure to stop for some takoyaki (octopus balls) or grilled, meat-wrapped rice balls (probably my favorite festival treat). The crowds continue up to the huge, colorful main shrine, where you can purify your hands and make an offering to the gods. As you ascend the rows of gates, you will shuffle along with teeming masses of visitors marveling and taking millions of pictures, but the higher up the mountain you climb, the crowds will gradually drop off, leaving you alone with the forest, the red gates, and your thoughts. It is a place like no other I’ve been to, and well worth slowing down for.
After Fushimi Inari, our time in Kyoto had come to an end, and we made our way to beautiful Kyoto Station for our return ride on the Thunderbird Limited Express back to Kanazawa. My companions all quickly fell asleep, and I dozed a bit too, but woke up around 19:00 when my phone went off. So I was awake when, 10 minutes later, the train screeched to a halt at a station I didn’t recognize. I was a bit confused but enraptured by the beauty of the fading light outside the window. Soon after, there was some sort of announcement I didn’t understand. One of my friends speaks Japanese, so we had her translate. There had been an accident. We were instructed to close the curtains. We peeked out anyway, and saw a cat on the tracks, right outside our window. How strange! A cat, so close to the train. A very curious cat, very curiously looking at something right under our car. . .
Another announcement. There would be delays of over an hour. The exact translation from Japanese was “human accident”. Oh God. It hit us. Human accident. What the cat was looking at under our car. Someone had jumped, or fallen onto the tracks.
The next hour passed slowly, labourously, like in a dream where you attempt to run but try as you might you can’t move your legs fast enough. Paramedics and police hurriedly ran around the train. We heard them outside our window, saw flashes as they took photographs, made reports, cleaned up. The worst part was when it was necessary to move the train back 10 meters, and. . . it was. . . bumpy. Some of the time we sat in grim silence. At other times we speculated on the dead. Were they a man or woman? What was their life like? What brought them here? Sporadically one of us would become visibly emotional, eyes welling with tears, and but we were there for each other, to hold each other’s hands and offer a word or two of comfort. Eventually the train began moving again, and we played some cards to lighten the mood. Far later than anticipated, we made it back to Kanazawa, and we each went to our own beds, physically and mentally exhausted.
If you have been wondering why it took me so long to write about Kyoto, this is why. I needed time to be able to put this experience into words and to be able to look back on this trip without having the trauma of the train ride taint the entire adventure.
As important as the experiences I have are, what makes them more valuable to me are the people I share them with and the connections I make along the way. This group of people, my Kanazawa community, is so special to me, and the best friends I’ve made in Japan. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to have adventures with, be they carousing in a dive bar or meditating on a mountainside or being stuck on a stopped train in the middle of Japan. Jae, Bea, and Ryan, thanks for the memories. Let’s make some more!