Was it a visit or satogaeri (coming home)? I wondered about this over the seven weeks I spent in Japan late last year, having arrived there just in time to watch England lose the last game of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Tokyo from a hospital room in Kyoto with an old friend recovering from a hip operation.
Seven weeks is not as long as it sounds if you try and cram a year’s worth of life into it. I know because I tried. I was in Japan to promote my new business to former colleagues at Kyoto University, prospective students for a Hidden Lakeland study tour from the University of Tokyo and tour operators and tourism industry specialists in Osaka, Shiga and Tokyo. But it was packing in pleasure as well as business that pushed long days into long nights – zipping between friends who were family to me throughout the 20 years I spent in Kyoto as an assistant English teacher, a student, a professor and eventually, a permanent resident.
Connecting as well as reconnecting, then: most of this happening in Kyoto, an ancient capital juxtaposing modern amenity with the ancient pine trees, cedars, cherry and gingko trees and backstreets, alleys, bridges, temples and yearnings of old Japan. Cradled in a valley with spectacular forest-clad mountains to three sides and a river running through its heart, Kyoto brings us heavenly gardens as well as soulless pachinko parlours, the elegant and elusive geisha as well as steaming ramen shops and seamy hostess bars on Kiyamachi. It’s a shrine to the shadows praised by author Tanizaki Junichiro but a place too where light and bright identikit modern homes and high-rise apartment buildings rise up to take out the view whenever the heart of another old Kyoto timber house stops beating. It’s about exquisite hospitality and immaculately prepared food and bus-drivers cutting you off when you’re cycling down the road.
For my partner, flying in to spend my last three weeks with me and seeing Japan for the first time, Kyoto was never having on the right slippers at the right time, old wooden houses colder on the inside than the temperatures outside, heated washlet toilets with hi-tech display panels boasting multiple and mysterious functions, and impeccable wrapping. Lots of it. Too much of it. It was also about meeting my past through my old friends, one of whom brought her husband down to Kyoto while we were there, from Tokyo, where she now works. The four of us visited the wonderful family that housed my friend and me at different times as well as the highschool where we first met back in 1992, when she was an exchange student from New Zealand and I was newly arrived in Japan, teaching English to her Japanese classmates.
It was a magical time, rediscovering a place grown familiar over time through my partner’s eyes, as his guide. We shared temples, gardens and shrines and cakes and favourite dishes in old and favourite haunts, and walked by the Kamo river under endless blue skies as one dry sunny day followed another, bringing the joy of red maples – kouyou – and a much needed postponement of winter. Nowhere celebrates the passing of the seasons quite like Japan, with not just the maple leaves to enjoy while we were there but special foods such as shiitake and matsutake (mushrooms, the latter a rare delicacy), kuri (chestnut) wrapped in o-manju (sweet bean cakes) and limited edition autumnal beers. There were also special temple openings to view artefacts and treasures hidden the rest of the year, and celebrated light ups, inviting in the crowds to see gardens and forests lit up at night. We gobbled it all up, in this most addictive, and blessed city.
Outside Kyoto, the highlight of our stay was a five-day spiritual journey walking the Kumano Kodo together, endlessly ascending and descending a stone path through cedar forests kissed by mist and light rain past the remains of the ancient teahouses that once served pilgrims, walking from Hongu Taisha to the celebrated shrine and falls at Nachi.
For much of the trip, however, I was alone. I found myself lost not in translation but in reflection one day, gazing out on the last red maple leaves of the season reflected in the lake of a temple garden. Each seemed as real as the other, the life itself, and the image of that life, seen at one remove. My life, it seems, straddles two worlds. As the song goes, “There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us.” If that’s so then mine is in between. Hovering in Philip Larkin’s all important Elsewhere, “where strangeness makes sense”, forlorn misfit and joyful nomad, both.
It’s taken me three years to repatriate to the UK. Six, if you count three that I spent living seven months in Japan and five in Kendal, gradually putting together a home in the UK. Struggling still to say yes or no, and I can do that, taking my shoes off at the door, expecting good food and to feel safe outdoors after dark: I carry Japan in me now just as I carried the UK in me when I lived there all those years, holding on to my northern vowels, sarcasm and love of a good pint, books, indie bands and family.
Hence Hidden Lakeland – my attempt to share everything I have here with people who once gave me everything I had there. It’s a good life, sharing life, loved places, secrets and laughter. Looking at the Lakes through Japanese eyes, even as my friends in Kyoto used sometimes to look at their culture through mine. Such a precious and curiously intimate experience, this business of sharing home.