Settling in, and Exploring

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Pontocho-dori, Kyoto

It’s been five days now since my arrival in Kyoto, enough to get settled in reasonably well at the African Studies Center. I write from my desk in the postgrad office, a thankfully-modern and centrally-heated building, unlike my flat, in which my breath steams in the mornings.

It turns out that I was using the kotatsu, or heated table, completely wrong. As I sat underneath it’s space-heater warmth, while I felt not unlike one trapped in a toaster I noticed the leaking of heat from the open sides of the table firstly did nothing to heat up the frigid room and secondly meant that only about ten square centimetres of me was warm at any one time.

In frustration, I took everything off the table in an effort to lift it onto its back, thinking that at least I could have a look and see if it had a higher setting. Upon attempting this, the loose top came off in my hands, revealing the frame. After a minute of thinking I’d broken it, I remembered the extra, though bizarrely square, duvet that sat folded up in the cupboard.

Behold, a correctly-used kotatsu:

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I live here now.

It is warmer, and I still have a table. The only downside is my reluctance to ever leave its warm embrace. I have never sat on the floor so much in my life. You may recall I was going to ask about a space heater, however my googling about the kotatsu found that in Japan houses are rarely well insulated, and central heating is by no means normal. My “When In Rome” anthropologist programming has taken over, and I am determined that to use anything else for warmth would make me weak.

On the occasion that I can actually extricate myself from the floor, I have mainly been exploring some of the many temples and shrines that Kyoto is famous for. I won’t see all of them. I couldn’t in a year: there are 1600 of them.

I had heard, however, that there was a Shinto shrine and garden just opposite my house, so on my first day exploring I endeavoured to find it. Having seen shrines by the side of the road, lovely little boxes with offerings to the spirits who live everywhere, I was expecting something similar. Hidden behind a wall and a line of trees, however, I found something a little different.

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Pictured: A very big box on the roadside.

Heian Shrine is in fact a miniature (Ha!) copy of the Kyoto Imperial Palace just up the road, and is a holy place considered highly important to followers of Shinto across Japan. It extends back for hundreds of metres,  a fine gravel floor on the inside. Worshippers washed their hands with small bowls on sticks outside before proceeding in. I wasn’t quite sure what I should do, however as nothing was stopping me from entering I did so. The worshippers (along with the curious author) proceeded to the far side at which time photography became expressly forbidden, so you will have to take my word for it when I say that the inside was stunningly beautiful.

An offering was made of coins into a large grille, the devotee would bow, clap twice, bow once more, then step away. They seemed content to do so with my observing, and in fact hardly seemed to notice, despite it being relatively quiet. I would feel rather self-conscious doing so.

Behind the shrine is a Japanese garden, the first one I had in fact seen, and my first glimpse into the fact that gardening in Japan is considered an art quite as much as painting or calligraphy. Even in January, it is a beautiful place:

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Everything is immaculate here.

I think the main takeaway from the gardens is how stunningly quiet they are, even positioned as they are in the middle of the city. Once you step inside, you could be in a garden anywhere. It’s fairly new, too, founded in 1895 to commemorate 1100 years since the establishment of Kyoto as the once-capital of the Empire. Perhaps that is the reason the engines of the cars on the road seem so well blocked out by the thoughtfully-placed walls and trees.

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This is exactly as peaceful as you think it is.

It made for a rather contemplative first morning, and a wander through Nishiki market (where you can “get anything”, according to Lonely Planet) was a bit of a surprising change. Nonetheless, it got me to somewhere I could experience one of the things about Japan that I had been looking forward to the most: Food.

At a small family-owned wooden restaurant just off the main market plaza, I asked, with the help of my ever-present phrasebook, for something they recommended. I was not disappointed:

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Left to right: Miso, rice, black beans, beetroot, fruit I don’t know, Tofu with fish-flakes on, egg roll, pickled ginger, salmon, and green tea. The green tea is nearly always free.

I paid between five and six euros for that lot. Not bad. I’ve decided, food-wise, to throw myself in at the deep and and eat local food as much as possible, partly because I love it anyway, and partly because the total absence of bread, cakes and cheese (had none since I got here) has got to be doing me some sort of good after Christmas. In Germany I live on bread and cheese.

I’m noticing in my diet a slowdown on meat consumption, too. I’ve eaten a bit, but where I am eating, admittedly more budget sort of places, along with the student canteen, it seems to be much smaller portions than I eat elsewhere, and more often than not tends to be fish, which I am really enjoying. I cooked some beef myself at home to put in my ramen, and there was some pork in a Chinese-style tofu dish I ate for lunch at the student canteen, but other than that for the last five days it has been fish, vegetables and either rice or noodles. The umami flavour receptors are having a wee party, I can tell you. Salt seems to be the main problem: I get the feeling I’m eating too much of it. Other than that I feel pretty good. Christmas food is nice, but getting away from the winter European diet has got to be good for me. Barring the occasional pizza craving (determined as I am not to satisfy it) I am happy with it, too.

The green tea is, as you might expect, bloody amazing, and in most food places free and unlimited. Also very high in caffeine. I am being careful as a result, and laying off coffee. One cup a day, then green tea, seems to be the ticket, and I am awake but thankfully not climbing the walls as I used to with the office percolator making half a litre of espresso for three people back in Germany.

Probably contributing to feeling good is the amazing fact that I now have my very own way to get around Kyoto:

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This is what freedom looks like.

Courtesy of the University of Kyoto in their generosity, I now have two wheels upon which to get around. I went to the bicycle shop and asked for “the biggest bike you have”. In truth, this one is still a little small for me. The saddle is held just above the “Maximum” point, and my freakishly long (for Japan) legs do still bend at the bottom of the pedal rotation but no matter. It’s comfy enough, and comes with a stand, lock and dynamo, and is my first step-through frame dutch bike. I honestly don’t think I’ll go back, they’re so convenient. Gendered assumptions about bicycles be damned, I can stop and step off this one with a load on the back at a moment’s notice.

The only thing it needs now is a name. Suggestions welcome, although in keeping with tradition since Japanese money bought the bike I think that a Japanese name would be fitting, although it has to be a rare enough one that I won’t encounter someone bearing the name later on, thus making it odd.

My days at the moment seem to consist of an hour or two’s cycling around and sightseeing in the morning, followed by working in the afternoon. I’ve not forgotten why I’m here, and it is now merely thirteen days until my presentation is in fact due to be presented on the 26th January. Fortunately, I have come up with a plan. I’ve never spoken for more than about twenty minutes on the subject of my thesis, especially in its unfinished state as it is, but it is surprising how much more I have than I thought I did. This “writing a bit, putting things away and forgetting about them” strategy means that I am happily doing more editing than actual writing next week to construct my hour-and-twenty-or-so seminar talk. I shall not be confident until it is fully written, though.

As I settle into the rhythm of living and working here in a new and unfamiliar place, I shall say, for now, sayounara!

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Kennin-ji Rinzai Zen Temple. One of the oldest Zen temples in Japan.

Adventures with Gretel

I finally decided to make the trip out of Cologne I’ve been planning for ages. I didn’t go far, but being raised in the country has left me with a tendency to feel somewhat bereft if I spend too long in the absence of fields, trees and other “natural” things. I don’t have a map, and my mobile telephone is notoriously unreliable when it comes to accessing maps on the move, so I decided to rely on my intuition. Bearing in mind where this has got me before, I decided to follow the road I live on until it exits the city, and just see how far the outskirts of the biggest cities in the industrial Rhineland go.

A quick glance at Google maps showed what looked like a lake, so I thought it best to aim for it.

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Upon cycling out, however, after the normal car park that you’d associate with a natural-ish thing just outside of city limits, I found what amounted to a filled-in quarry, complete with signs telling me not to swim, as if it had looked particularly inviting beforehand. Even in the thirty degree Rhineland sunshine, diving in there would have taken a bravery that I think crosses the line into stupidity. I was disappointed about the lack of natural-ness, but not deterred. I passed what looked like still-working quarry equipment, and continued on my way, wondering how much Gretel (my dutch bicycle) could handle as the rocks on the dusty road seemed to grow in size the farther I got from the main road.

I passed a stables, and found myself on a farm track leading through a wheat field. At last, I thought, here I am in The Country. If I pretend not to see the cooling towers and the massive power lines, this almost feels like a very flat, very warm Lowlands. I felt at home. For one thing, past the stables, I didn’t encounter a single soul, and couldn’t hear a single car. This, living in Ehrenfeld as I do, home to boy racers and wandering drunks by the pubload, was a welcome relief.

 

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Actually, more than anything else, I was reminded of trips into the English countryside during my six years of living in the home counties (those posh bits around Lahndahn where you’re judged on the amount by which your house increased in value, and the ways on which you hold forth upon this topic at Come-Dine-With-Me-style dinner parties) and it was altogether pleasant. Thirty degrees of sunshine and (I cannot stress this enough) no bloody people made for a fantastic lunchtime ride.

I was struck once again with a nice bit of luck as I rounded the corner at the end  of the track above. Squinting through the haze, I could just about see the top of the highest building in Cologne, the fantastically ugly Colonius tower. Fantastically ugly it may be, but it marks my home district, and meant that despite seeing nothing but fields and trees around me, I could orient myself without compass or map, and find my way home.

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It was approaching twelve, and it is the beginning of July, so a break at the copse in the middle of the wheat field was in order. I’d been prepared enough to bring two litres of water, for which I was very grateful to my former self, however I had not thought to buying anything for lunch, full up as I was upon my leaving with tea, toast and Marmite. I’m still on the Namibian supply of that stuff, and need to head to the English Shop (no joke folks) soon to get some more. Nonetheless, I was in a field, and a handful of heads of wheat rolled in between your hands frees up a surprising amount of grain. Along with the water and a bit of shade, it did nicely. I also found what I thought might be a badger set, unless anyone reading this knows otherwise.

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Rested, refreshed and with the faint taste of grass and flour in my mouth, I made back for Colonius along a new farm track, glad I could make something of a round trip of it, and feeling like I’d done a bit of exploring to boot. I weaved back and forth between fields and bits of woodland, noticing even here that the cycle paths were not only present, but signposted with distances in kilometres to the next town. I must say, the Rhineland cycle infrastructure has impressed me. Apart from some token efforts in parks and cities, my homeland seems rather far behind in this regard. We can only blame the hills for so long, countrymen! What is more, I encountered a couple of my first serious hills on Gretel, and she handled them magnificently.

I did find a lake in the end, along with some blackberries that will be an excellent dessert for the Rhineland hunter-gatherer in about a month.

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Alas, they were still too green. The lake was nice though:

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Distinctly industrial-machinery-free, for which I am grateful. All in all, I think a rather successful trip. I feel like the city isn’t the entire world, which is a bonus, and I found out that Gretel can handle (or should that be Hansel?) quite a lot more than I gave her credit for as a city-trundler. I may make that epic Europe bicycle trip yet. I’ll be careful, though. I might cycle everywhere now, but that can’t have been more than thirty kilometres, and my legs are already complaining. Looks like I have some work to do.

For now, Tschuß!