Kinosaki Knights

Fresh from the pristine glow of the previous night’s alien pods, the local express train took us backwards in time to Kinosaki Onsen.

This traditional spa resort is quintessential dinner plate Japan complete with picturesque willow-lined canal running through it’s tiny centre. The pavements echo with the clacking of geta (wooden platformed flipflops) as guests stroll between bath houses in their patterned yukatas (kimonos).

It was an evening of Japanese cultural firsts. We stayed in a ryokan (a small traditional guesthouse), where we were presented with outfits, towels and tea ready for the evening’s hot spring hopping. In our paper screened room(s) as big as our flat we were served a dinner and breakfast that covered the entire coffee table in delicately filled bowls.

After our banquet we took a leisurely stroll through the lamplit town to be cooked in a steaming outdoor onsen. Hopefully we got the etiquette of communal (same sex) bathing right; it was a slightly unnerving test when we once again went our separate ways. No trendy signage here, we made sure we learnt the Kanji for male and female first to minimise embarrassment. After what we both guessed was half an hour (it was more like fifteen minutes, those baths are damn hot) we were reunited to continue our tour. Dressed as Jedi, we enjoyed ice creams before firing some shots at the vintage amusement arcade.

Yep, another childhood fantasy ticked off the list – as visible from the elated glint in the Karate Kid’s eye below. My turn next… What could it possibly be?

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Another Saturday night in Kyoto

Featuring Mr Kanso and the capsule hotel.

When we found ourselves back in Kyoto for one night on route to our next destination, we knew what we needed to do.

First of all: track down Mr Kanso. We’d come across him somewhere along the interweb and were intrigued. A bar that serves only food in a can, you say? We owed it to Tom to visit such a place at least.

Sticking our heads round the sliding door we discovered an intimate establishment, it’s low bar-facing wall lined with colourful preserved oddities. Greeting us was a husband and wife couple in their fifties (winners of the nicest people we’ve met in Japan prize along with the sweetshop man, but that’s another story). If my dad was a Japanese barman, this would be him; gently clapping along to the sounds of the Stones and the Eagles with a beer in hand and the warmest smile. We chatted at the bar whilst feasting on our carefully selected meal of seaweed & beans, teriyaki chicken, and saucy fish. Surprisingly, there’s no Heinz to be seen. I think Breakfast in a Can would go down well next to the Korean imports.

After a while the room began to fill up with locals (like I said, it’s a small bar, so you could count them on one hand). We were treated to a gift of freshly caught fish and a friendly, somewhat tiddly carpenter insisted on buying us drinks. He was a man with a stocky build suited to his trade but he’d giggle behind his hands like a schoolgirl in conversation. By the end of the night it was clear that everybody should have a local drinking hole like Mr Kanso.

Through a tipsy fog, half an hour before midnight, we managed to navigate the subway to find our prebooked beds. Wo.

We’d enviously spotted Nine Hours next to our backpacker hostel on our last visit. It shone out to us. A deliciously pretentious beacon of monochrome minimalism.

So on this second visit to Kyoto, we disappeared into our gender appropriate lifts for our fist night apart in months. Our first taste of capsule living was a futuristic heaven. AWESOME.

I’ll let this explain http://www.monocle.com/sections/design/Web-Articles/9-hours/

The Darling Buds of Gogatsu

So we made it! Jonny and Sarah did the Simple Life (Japan Style).

For the first time in almost four months, we did a real, honest, hand’s-dirty, week’s work in the blossom filled basin that is Azumino; an agricultural area of apple fame in the Japanese Alps. With not a shop nor a temple in sight, we picked flowering buds until our thumbs were raw for seven, whole, regimented days (valuable preparation for the real world).

Needless to say it was somewhat of a shock to the system to have such a routine. But in a good way. Not only was it refreshing to be inhale the cool country air of picture-perfect, real-life Totoro-land (a whole other side of Japan, although we didn’t see any cat buses), it was a good time for some proper traveling induced reflection.

Why? We were WWOOFERs. Nothing canine, this bizarre acronym stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms. It was always going to be a part of our Japanese itinerary – to live with a family and work their land, in return for food and a bed. We were treated with kindness, even though our Japanese language skills shamefully failed us and Jon was even presented with a birthday cake on our last evening. Oishii!

Obachan’s (grandma) ever varying cooking was a highlight. As was the hyperactive antics of the two year old ten pin bowling fanatic – the youngest member of the six-person family. Little Towa was awesome. He bowled all he could, with the poise of a pro. When denied his ball,he would roll dinnerware across the floorboards, and when energy levels were low, he’d watch the sport on Youtube. What a dude.

So when not setting up skittles, strike after strike, our days went a little like this:

6.40: Breakfast, which usually consisted of the last night’s tasty leftovers. It’s amazing how quickly you adapt to eating dinner for breakfast.
7.15: Housework for half an hour. Jon got the short straw, donning lovely little blue rubber slippers to mop the bathroom each day. My job was to sweep the tatami mats.
8.00: Off to the field! Here we’d thin the buds tree after tree, ready for them to grow into giant, juicy Fuji apples (they’re the size of grapefruits in this part of the world). We’d pick and pick and pick until the relieving melody of a familiar hymn tinkled across the skies announcing tea-break time for all the land (a sound that came to mark the numerous chapters of the day). With the six or so other workers, we’d gather round on upturned apple crates, sipping hot black tea and munching on rice crackers.
12.00: Back to the long dining table for the ravenous sounds of ramen slurping. Lunch was a feast, the ramen or soba always accompanied with tofu, miso soup and crunchy pickled radish. Speedy washing up would follow every meal.
13.30: More picking…
15.30: We’d hear the cry of ‘Jon-Saaaaan, Sarah-Saaaaan, game over!’. Like school children, we’d be released to wash off the dirt of the day and recover our sun-zapped energy in time for dinner at six. Apart from the first two days when the picking was substituted with box-painting and peeling vegetables, we worked under skies of never-ending blue.

We did have a day off from the routine which was suprisingly exhausting and usually found us asleep by 9.30pm. A perfect Sunday was spent hiking in the New Zealandesqe alpine mountain resort of Kamikotchi. We walked an entire day hand in hand, alongside ice-blue river water, the occasional monkey and bamboo forest, with an wonderful sense of freedom.

We snaffled a good amount of e-numbers on that trip too, after the diet of brown rice and beans (which was all absolutely delicious but the wholesomeness needed a little bit of a sugar kick from time to time). With no shops in the locality of the farm, our only access to unnatural foodstuffs was one of the glorious banks of vending machines, a ten minute walk away. I think the vending machines of Japan deserve their own separate post to be honest. All I will say is, AMERICAN PANCAKE FLAVOURED HOT TEA IN A CAN. We discarded that can before going back to the farm.

So depite being so different to anything we’re used to and at times a little bit of an endurance test, life on the farm was great. Welly good in fact. Whilst I won’t say that I’ve been fully converted to wholesome healthy, rosy-cheeked country living (testified by my recurring shopping anxiety dream), the workings of an almost self-sufficient family and an organic farm has been inspiring. I can’t wait to tend to our own little patch of earth.

With Twickenham beckoning in just over two weeks, we are fresh and ready to make the most of it. Starting with a long-awaited beer.

Hello Kyoto

Here’s Hiroshima

Out and about in Osaka

Oh Osaka!

Our 80% empty plane touched down at Kansai International Airport at six fifteen last night and we sped through in no time, being the only people in the international customs ‘queue’.

Oh my god we are glad we decided to come. I think I possibly sound a little bit special when I say I haven’t felt so overwhelmed since er possibly Christmas mornings in the late eighties? EVERYTHING is incredible.

We’ve only been here one evening but I feel some sort of frenzied need to take everything in, as if it’s a dream I’m going to wake up from. Quite irrational and dramatic I know, but the truth.

Our hostel (Hostel 64) alone has a designer’s fantasy bookshelf that I was reluctant to leave. It is geek heaven. We skipped down the quiet bicycle lined streets past intimate red lanterned ramen joints and tiny bars that glowed with soft light and laughter. Everything is so neat, nobody wears colour and there’s a comfortingly familiar chill in the air.

We only made it to the supermarket but that was more than enough to leave me grinning from ear to ear.

I can’t imagine what today will bring but we’re going to start with experimenting with the buttons on a heated toilet seat and an ‘Akira’ sit down shower machine. Holy moly.