Thursday, March 24, 2011

Kyoto and Powercuts

Last week all my classes were canceled as a result of the earthquake, tsunami and fears about people being irradiated. I thought about what i could do to help and realised that i could do nothing apart from use less electric at home. So i went to Kyoto instead.

As Kyoto was the capital of Japan before Tokyo it’s a pretty historical place, half-filled with buildings and temples built and used hundreds of years ago and still standing proudly around the city. Kyoto is a bit of a battle ground. Old and new buildings compete with the skyline and tourist attention. Traditional kimonos trade blows with modern fashion and occasionally win. Old cosy bars and restaurants gently invite you down small alleys while neon blares out of shopping centres. When i was there, even winter and spring were locked in combat with the winter showers easily beating the occasional March sunshine. It was freezing.

I saw the understated Imperial Palace and the opulent Nijo-jo complex that was once home to Shoguns and the ruling elite. There was a breathtaking temple called Sanjusangen-jo which contained 1001 near life-sized Buddhist statues. There was the wonderful Kiyomizu Temple that sits on an impossibly massive wooden veranda overlooking the city with a thatched roof. It was busy when i was there so i imagine it’s a bit mental when spring finally wins the fight against winter and tourists invade the place.

I spent most of the time in Kyoto walking around trying to keep warm and was randomly stopped on the street buy a small camera crew who asked if i could speak Japanese. I lied and said “Yes, a little.” OK, can you be on a cable TV show? Two men, who i’m assuming were comedians but only because of the clothes they were wearing, started to ask me lots of questions and i stood there shivering looking like an utter idiot trying to respond to them. I can only hope i’ve been edited out unless the title of the show is Look, Foreigners Are Stupid in which case i might be top billing.

I stayed just one night and slept in a capsule hotel that was so minimalist and stylish it would make Steve Jobs blush. It was an advert in brushed steal, white plastic and being overpriced. Still, it was a place to crash after getting drunk in a little counter bar where i seemed to make instant friends for being able to use chopsticks and drink hot sake. The middle aged woman sat next to me seemed to want to always try and show me her cleavage, the barman giggled every time i said anything, a business man chatted to me about work and a nice woman with an medical eye patch kept winking at me (although, come to think of it, she could have been blinking but it’s nice to be optimistic).

I also managed to find another random museum - the International Manga Museum. Manga is massive in Japan. The cartoon book magazines are serialised with new editions and volumes being released at regular intervals. It’s a printed version of a soap opera with different manga written for and consumed by every inch of Japanese society. There’s sci-fi manga, comedy manga, political manga, school girl manga, crime manga, housewife manga, businessman manga. If you’re a person, then there’s probably a manga for you and as a result there’s manga everywhere in Japan. It doesn’t seem to matter where you go you always see somebody reading manga. The museum itself was an old school that had been converted into a manga library with walls filled with the magazines and displays in English and Japanese telling you about the history of genre and plenty of seats occupied by people with their heads buried in another edition. As it was international they also had manga that had been translated into different languages and so i sat and read the first three instalments of Ikigami which is a kind of dystopian story about people who know that they only have 24 hours to live. Unfortunately i only had a few hours before the train to Tokyo left and so i had to put down the little book magazine and promise myself that i’d return to Kyoto when the weather was warmer to sample more of its temples and nightlife.

I’m back at work now in Chiba and Tokyo which means that half my lessons begin by wasting at least fifteen minutes swapping earthquake stories and being politely asked why i haven’t left Japan. Greater Tokyo and the north east of the country is still being wobbled by occasional aftershocks and everybody is wondering when the power stations will be back online (Fukushima wasn’t the only plant to get knocked out by the tsunami, just the only one to leak tiny amounts of radioactive material) which means that the power saving and rolling powercuts could continue for a few more months and spring and summer could be a bit smelly and sweaty without air-con. Air-freshener, deodorant and icy ice-cold beer at the ready.

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