Mountain gods: Christmas in Kyoto

Mountain gods: Christmas in Kyoto

originally published February 17, 2022

My first Christmas in Japan marked my first serious bout with homesickness. Holidays away from home hadn’t tormented me in South Africa or the UK — but this was my first time overseas with no one to visit. There is a big difference, I discovered, between being away from your family, and being without any family at all.

At loose ends for the end of the year, I maximized my vacation time with a trip to Kyoto, the destination most recommended to me by my Japanese co-workers and students.

Before I boarded the plane, I tackled my first full month at work, with all the typical frenzy and festivities.

A fellow ALT (Assistant Language Teacher – our job title as JET participants) invited me to the island’s celebration of being declared a World Heritage site last year. At the bullfighting ring, we ran into many students. Though the speeches were mostly lost on me, I was thrilled about the dance.

World Heritage festival

The event rounded off with a bevy of singers with roots in the island, rocking guitars, music videos, and dance moves.

My long delayed search for a bike (couldn’t find one to accommodate my height!) finally reached a happy conclusion, when I ordered an extra tall bike from Nishimuta (a store something like the resident Wal-Mart)

It surprised me how exhilarating it is, having my own transportation: now I can dash out for lunch during the school day and be back in 10 minutes. I feel freer to explore, and less obtrusive zipping past.

One day I pushed myself to follow the sidewalk that runs parallel to the coast as far as I could go – and landed at the beach! “Gorilla Rock” rises among shallow tidal pools, close enough to walk across the waves and scale its natural steps.

As much as I admired the architecture of Oxford, there is something deeply refreshing about natural beauty – perhaps because it’s ever changing, endlessly varying? Ocean, sun, flowers make up the landscape of my days here.

With the students home for the holidays, I took advantage of my open schedule to visit the special needs school housed within the same building.

They invited me to an “art appreciation meeting” (or “reception,” as I translated it for them, after some thought). The projects genuinely wowed me: even more when they displayed them, with the dragon airborne, menacing from a cloud overhead. The children and staff welcomed me sweetly.

Determined to engage more with my school, I made dates with two of my neighbors – the school nurse and the home economics teacher – for a talent exchange! For round one, they taught me their trades. Next, I promised to sketch their portraits.

JET actually assigned me to teach at two high schools here. My second school, located on the much smaller Yoron island, isn’t big enough to house its own ALT and so borrows Tokunoshima’s once every term or so.

From Yoron’s highest point, you can turn in a full circle and see water in every direction. It’s known for its fabulous beaches – though this year, a deluge of gray pumice has blemished their white sands: rigid lava washed up from a recent undersea eruption.

view from the Southern Cross observatory, where you can see the remains of a castle – the outpost of Okinawa’s king!

The teachers treated me royally: booking me at a comfortable b&b, celebrating my arrival with a sashimi dinner. I loved the fish at the time, but when its head showed up in my final soup course… it’s perhaps not surprising that it also swam into my dreams that night.

Since we only have a week together, Yoron packs my schedule twice as full as my base school’s. I squeezed in time to visit after-school events like the research symposium, and the bow and arrow martial arts club. During the lunch period, a baker brought his freshmade goods to sell: pastries filled with sesame seed cream, baguettes slathered in cheese – all dubbed “bread” in Japanese English.

During the week, I hung out with an ALT from a private company. We dined with my co-worker at a sushi restaurant, where I jumped at the chance to sample the local fish.

I was due to depart on Friday afternoon, but the winds kicked up – too dangerous for the ferry. They rebooked me for Saturday, which gave me the opportunity to sneak a little more sightseeing. I could also join the teachers for their end-of-year celebration dinner, where they very gamely communicated as much as possible with me (one of the English teachers attended and helped interpret) – and even performed a Japanese haiku for me, complete with calligraphy.

Touring the cliffside with my coworker, we paused to exclaim over a tidal pool. We were wondering how it had filled so high up on the rocks – when the advent of a head-high wave illuminated the question for us!

The ferry could operate on Saturday, but the waves rocked it so violently that even the teachers looked at me wide-eyed. ‘We don’t envy you,’ their looks said. I opted for my usual tactic and flattened myself to the public room’s mats. It’s like resting in a hammock – on turbo.

Back on Tokunoshima, it surprised me to find Christmas cheer in full force: the shops decked out with lights and tinsel, and multiple parties on the calendar. My fellow Westerners brought me along to a feast with their co-workers’ families: a light-hearted and generous bunch, who stuffed us with delicious food. We laughed until we cried over bilingual word games, which later manifested in my lesson plans.

I attended not one Christmas church service but three: at the house church, at the new Protestant church that I’ve joined, and at the Catholic church – where a trilingual Japanese/Filipino/English translation brought some Logos to the service and lifted my spirits, in concert with the party favors and dedicated choir. A tiny Mary dressed in white deposited a doll in the manger for us, an endearing pageantry.

My school wrapped up the term with an end-of-year ceremony – and a Christmas concert! The school band enchanted me with their decorations and multi-talented band.

Christmas morning, I boarded my first plane off the island – destination, Kyoto! The immense scale of the place repeatedly overwhelmed me. Traveling illiterate, where even the train station names appear in kanji, taxed my resources, but it rewarded my efforts with spectacular sights and great kindness from its people.

First stop: Osaka Castle – with the meagre remnants of its historic structures converted into a museum, the place testifies to the efficacy of the military assaults launched against it.

Craving an English church service, I spent my Sunday on a special trip to a suburb of Kyoto – traveling by train, of course.

There I met a friend of a friend from South Africa – a young mother who had spent two years in the same rural community in South Africa! Sylvia, the principal of the Christian school there, had connected us. In the middle of Japan, I found myself dusting off my Afrikaans and greeting her new baby, the beautifully named Gabriel.

Her church embraced me for the afternoon and farewelled me with mutual wishes that my home weren’t so far from theirs.

With Kyoto’s most famous attractions all shutting down at 5pm, I posed the question to the tourist information des: What was there to do at night? They delivered handsomely, directing me to a light festival at a local temple, plus a show the next night in Osaka. It lined up perfectly with my reservation in next-door Kobe, home of the extravagant Kobe beef.

In Japan, tickets are often sold at digital kiosks in convenience stores like 7-11. I spent ten minutes poking haplessly at what turned out to be a copy machine, before surrendering and appealing to the cashier. As he kindly entered my information, he couldn’t believe that my last name ended in “ku” so he appended it to my first… dubbing me “Kukiti Herumi.”

I hadn’t heard of Kobe beef before I decided to come to Japan – but Google it and you’ll find out. As a great lover of steak, I was keen to sample it – even at eye-watering prices. Google recommended Toro Road Steakhouse Aoyama for a balance of quality and budget, plus a friendly English-speaking staff. A shared language gave me the chance to learn a bit of their history: they have served diners for over sixty years, and partnered with the same rice farms for forty!

As I left the owner told me, “I thought you were European, you’re so polite!” – which struck me as something of a double-edged compliment. I had unmixed feelings, however, about her recommendation for how to spend my last two hours in the city: Don’t bother with the harbor, she told me, since you live on an island – ride the cable car to our mountainside herb garden.

Lingering too long in the garden, I had to hurtle back to Osaka for the show, irritating my knee joint in the process. I arrived on the dot, fretting about the Japanese expectation of punctuality, stressed about where to snag dinner. There was nothing to worry about, in the end: I had misread the event start time and arrived with minutes to spare.

The performance did not disappoint. It captivated me with a blend of traditional costuming and modern music, splashed on stage by what felt like all the extraverts in Japan. One of my favorite acts featured a band of performers, each in a traditional costume from a different era of Japanese history. Other acts ranged from jugglers and tumbling ninjas to a stage magician. I smiled at the noisemakers they passed out to liven up the crowd – we wouldn’t have sounded like much without them! The performance became wilder with each intermission, culminating in confetti and champagne glasses.

Osaka fusion, a show aimed at reviving the arts after the pandemic lockdowns

The next morning, my knee would not tolerate further disregard. I limped to the reception, asking plaintively for directions to the nearest pharmacy. Instead, the man walked me there himself – and translated for me with the pharmacist! Equipped with a brace and topical painkiller, I retired with relief for a quick nap.

A friend had recommended Nara deer park, so I determined to spend my afternoon there despite my exhaustion. I was anxious to see the deer before closing time, and wondered why their location wasn’t clearly labeled on the map – only to find them on every corner! An older gentleman showed me how it was done: while the young bucks turned up their noses at the cakes sold by the vendors on the street, they eagerly quested after the acorns in his pockets. He graciously lent some of his bounty to a young boy with poorer luck.

The next day I headed for the other big attraction outside the city, reasoning I’d spend my last two days in the center as my energy dwindled. I journeyed to Arashiyama for the “bamboo forest”: an impressively slender, dizzyingly tall collection, but what really impressed me was the sound! The wind rushed along the hollow stalks, rattling them like wood chimes.

On the way back, I squeezed in a stop at the Golden Temple, which turned out to well merit the detour. It was spectacular in the late sunlight, glittering like the medieval sun. I couldn’t get enough of staring.

Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple

Throughout the trip, I had trouble keeping myself fed – an aversion to spending money, compounded by depleted decision-making functions as hunger took over. When I could marshall myself to a meal, the range and variety matched the breadth of the city:

For my final day, I changed my mind and rented a kimono. Previously convinced it would be too frigid, my resolve crumbled as I admired the couples promenading through the bamboo forest. What better way to enjoy the temples I had jammed into the itinerary for my last day? The rental shop treated me like a queen, styling my hair and fitting me from undergarments up into a delicate rose pink ensemble.

For my final visit of the trip, I zigzagged by bus to the northeast corner of the city in search of the Silver Temple. It seemed like the appropriate complement after beginning my three-day temple tour with the Golden Temple.

This wasn’t accomplished without setbacks: it seems the bus system charges a reduced pity fee for confused souls who ride for one stop and immediately take the next bus in the opposite direction, as I had the occasion to notice twice.

The Silver Temple was far less dramatic than the Gold, demurely painted in grays and browns, its main attraction the effortlessly elegant garden sheltering it. Japanese architecture thrills me, with its emphasis on the surrounding spaces – situating high schools on top of hills for instance, where they double as emergency shelters and also require students to physically ‘ascend’ before entering.

About the temples I have more mixed feelings: even if most Japanese people declare themselves godless today, these structures are intended as sites of pagan worship. I try to focus on the culture and decline to spend money there, since the brochures assure me it’s understood as tithing.

On New Year’s Day, I caught my plane back to Kagoshima City, where I would spend my final Sunday with the church that had welcomed me so generously on my first visit. The Peach employees were profoundly patient with me, cooling my ire when my attempt to have lunch was derailed by the discovery that my bag was overweight.

In Kagoshima, I admired the city center’s Christmas displays. While waiting for my ride, I invested in a raincoat designed for bike riding (pricey, but worth every penny as I’ve used it near daily since returning to the island)

The pastor’s family treated me to a New Year’s celebratory dinner. Japanese is very pun friendly since it’s stocked with homophones, and this custom takes it to the next level: ‘tai’ fish is served at parties because its name sounds like the word for “congratulations”!

After church the next day, three ladies kidnapped me for “sushi fellowship”: 100 yen a plate at a conveyor belt restaurant, a bargain.

The holidays were hard for me, for the first time ever: I missed being with a family for Christmas, especially my family. Christian friends and kind strangers, from near and far across the world, helped make up the gap, soothed my soul, comforted and helped me rest. I felt deeply grateful, to them and to God, as I boarded the ferry home.

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