Sunday, 17 May 2015

between Kyoto and the deep blue sea

The sky is blue when we awake to the sound of birds chirping and a vacuum cleaner.  Vacuum cleaner?  Yep, that sure sounds like a vacuum cleaner.  It gets nearer and nearer before finally we hear an old lady muttering and trying to blow leaves away.  Is she really doing that?  Or is she really trying to tell us to clear off?  Japanese people are very polite and do not like confrontation so maybe this is a not so subtle hint to us.  When she retreats we get moving.  It's all a game.

It's hard to believe, but in the English-speaking Japanese Times we read that yesterday we cycled through Typhoon No.6  It apparently worked it's way up the country from Okinawa.  Thought the rain was a bit heavy.  Today is in stark contrast as we climb over a pass in a blaze of sunshine and descend into one almighty urban sprawl.  We are riding into the region that includes Osaka and Kyoto and in between the unheard of city of Takatsuki.  It takes a bit of pavement riding and then we give the road another go as we are now descending to what seems like sea level.  We are so happy the sun is out again we don't care about the surroundings.

Finally we get close to our destination - we are being hosted by Danny and Christine, two English teachers - and we stop to cook our tea beside the river.  There are plenty of people out for the late afternoon run/stroll/powerwalk/cycle.  It seems rare that anyone is actually socialising with anyone else - no-one is walking with a friend or jogging together - which strikes us as a bit sad.  Do people feel lonely here?  Some look slightly amused to see us cooking our dinner.  Some smile and nod as they pass by.  One bloke flies by on his bike and then turns around to chat to us.  Masa has cycled across Australia.  He seems like he is struggling to remember his English at first, but it might just be that he has so many questions to ask.  We talk and then he sets off again.  A bit later he comes back with bananas and a camera to take photos.  Such encounters are disarming. 

another tea in the park - down by the riverside

We let ourselves in to the flat.  The key was in the letterbox.  The light switches don't seem to work but there's an empty room where we dump our bags.  Danny had explained that they are both teaching and won't be back until after 9pm so to make ourselves at home.  I go for a shower and Gayle sets off the panic alarm.  The fire bell sounds on the landing and all the neighbours appear on the stairs to find out whose being murdered.  Meanwhile I'm hopping about trying to get my clothes back on and Gayle is burying her face in her hands.  "I thought it was the light switch" she cries.  She's too ashamed to open the front door so I have to go out and speak to the alarmed neighbours.  Meanwhile the bell is deafening.   Finally I work out how to switch it off - rip off the switch cover and pull the switch out. Silence.  Gayle apologises to the neighbours.  Stupid foreigners, they're probably thinking.  With any luck they'll think we are Danny and Christine.  We all look the same, right? 

"Hi, I'm Danny."  Danny looks Irish, speaks Yorkshire and has a Scandinavian surname.  We feel instantly connected to him because he offers us tea.  With milk.  A friend for life.  Christine is a a lovely American who clearly enjoys living in Japan.  She's been here about 8 years.  Both of them are teaching young kids and have just come back to work here after time off in the States and the UK.  They've only been in the appartment for three weeks.  Last year Danny cycled the length of the country from south to north with the intention of writing about the journey and Japan.  He's working through a second draft of the book and asks if we could read it.  It's very funny and insightful.  We recognise some of the quirky and puzzling aspects of Japanese life.  

Christine and Danny have mastered the Japanese kneel

We have felt slightly frazzled riding through Honshu and being in Christine and Danny's home is like an oasis of calm.  The typhoon day also made us wonder if we can bear to stay longer in Japan - the rainy season begins in June.  Danny is optimistic - he thinks it won't be so bad.  In fact, he wonders if the Japanese don't overegg the pudding sometimes when they talk with such certainty about the weather and the seasons.  It's almost as if they believe their world is one of fixed certainties, an unchanging world.  It's hard to explain but we know what he means.  One Japanese truism is that Japan has four seasons.  It is said as if this is a unique quality of Japan. He tells us that once he was asked in a classroom if England also has four seasons.  And anyway, Danny only had two days of rain last year on his ride.  So this probably means we face a month of storms and heavy flooding..........

We abuse our hosts' hospitality, chain ourselves to the railings and refuse to leave.  Thankfully they are such a chilled out couple and don't mind if we cook for them - always an experimental activity when you can't quite find what you want in the supermarket.  On one night they treat us to pizza.  It's a decadent pleasure.  But the real pleasure is having people who live here who have an understanding about the country to talk to.  I hope Christine and Danny don't think we are too hard on Japan.  We are critical about so much - and maybe this is because we haven't been able to bounce our opinions off anyone in the last three months.  But there's so much we like here too - and we understand why they are happy to live and work here.  

One of the desciptions Danny uses to describe Japan is that it is like a huge ship sailing in one direction and incapable of changing tack.  It might end badly unless the country can turn in another direction.  If you think the statistics for government debt in the UK are bad you should see those for Japan.  They have a much higher debt in proportion to GDP. But the economy is only one part of Japan's problems.  The ageing and shrinking population is another.  What is incredible here is the sense of conformity and the priority  of group harmony over personal wishes. 

riverside oasis in a connurbation of 18 million

Often in the cities we see children cycling home from school in the evening.  Like Taiwan there is a lot of pressure on children to do well in school and many attend cram schools.  Christine explains how the teaching environment she has experienced here emphasises learning through play - an antidote to the standard rote-learning methods more commonly used.  She describes with sympathy how most children say, when asked, that their favourite activity is sleeping.  When we stayed with Kiyoka we asked her about this and she felt that too much pressure was put on children.  She did not raise her kids this way.  But then Kiyoka is clearly not a typical parent.

After four nights with Danny and Christine we set off, reinvigorated, for Kyoto.  It's a Sunday morning and Danny is off to play cricket.  Cricket in Japan.  Who'd have thought it?  But then I think the Japanese are interested in so many things from the West, America especially, why not cricket.  Danny's team is mainly English and Indian ex-pats and now has a fanatical Pakistani player too.  I don't mean a jihadist - just the kind of guy who wants to bat, bowl, keep wicket and umpire, ideally all at the same time.  I can't play cricket for toffee, but I secretly wish I was joining Danny for a game in the park.  It's rare that I miss much from home, but spending time with these great people has got us thinking about England.  Now then, which way is Kyoto?

can you see it, luv? It's round here somewhere

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