Japan, again. Third time this year, and there'll be a fourth in October. This time I had no choice but to visit slap bang in the middle of Bon (more of that later), which meant paying a small fortune for a flight to Osaka when I wanted to be in Tokyo. This also meant shelling out for a Rail Pass which I don't usually do, but is well worth it if you're visiting for a holiday. I'd also been warned of the 30C+ heat and total humidity - a contrast to the cold and miserable British summer we're experiencing and so a good excuse to buy a few new clothes.
Travel from Osaka to Tokyo was by Shinkansen bullet train, and I managed to find a veggie 'ekiben' lunchbox for the first time, yummy.
By the time I got to Tokyo it was 4pm and I was pretty bushed, so after checking into my hotel I had a wander to a couple of nearby used kimono shops, bought a few pieces for my own collection, then took a booth in one of my favourite bars/eating spots and had '17 types of salad' and yakisoba, which they kindly made into a veggie version for me. Also heard cicadas in real life for the first time - blimey, they're noisy! Glad I could only hear them, though, as I have a phobia of the sight of them after being trapped in a very tiny loo with one on the back of the door many years ago!
Met up with Naoko to have my first experience of Japanese cinema! Obviously, there are many similarities, but in Japan there is a pile of blankets in the entrance (despite the heat, Naoko needed one), the popcorn and drink sizes are considerably smaller (no bad thing) and you are plunged into complete, absolute darkness and silence for the entire film (except for the guy next to Naoko, who snored the whole way through). We watched 'Japan's Longest Day', which has been remade to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. I understood little of the dialogue, and was surprised when Naoko said neither did she!!! Good film, though. After the film, we continued to sit in silence and darkness until the last of the credits had rolled. Must admit I stifled a little giggle about this.
Naoko had spotted that there was a sumo event nearby, and everybody knows how I love my sumo!!! There was a full-size sumo ring set up in the middle of a shopping centre, and lots of activities around it, for example this
Next, Naoko decided she wanted to try peach parfait from a famous (read extortionately expensive) cafe. Our only chance of affording it was to share, but after queuing for ages, they said we each had to buy something, so we shared a drink, too. These peaches are specially grown for their deliciousness and are in season right now, so despite the price they are very popular. Along with peach slices, there was cream, ice cream and a layer of mush at the bottom which was bruised peaches which couldn't be sold. Mmmm.
Felt a little guilty because my fabric suppliers were supposed to take this day off for Bon holiday, but I'd gently persuaded them that it was the only day I could do my 'fabric run', so they opened especially for me. I'd arranged to meet Emiko there, as she is an absolute superstar and the other half of the 'Dynamic Duo', and thanks largely to her we had shopped, packed and sent all the necessary fabric within about an hour. That must be a record!
Spent some time hunting for various other bits and bobs I needed, and over lunch I mentioned that I'd never been to Japan in summer before, so had never tried kakigori shaved ice. So immediately after lunch, we went in search of kakigori, which took about 30 seconds to find. There were a variety of flavours, but we both chose the most Japanese-sounding one of mochi rice balls, anko red bean paste and matcha green tea shaved ice. It was every bit as delicious as I'd imagined, and unbelievably refreshing in the Tokyo heat.
After Emiko left, I went to Asakusa to hunt down a few more vintage kimono for my collection. Outside my favourite shop, I saw an American lady holding up a haori jacket and asking her friend what it was. He didn't know, so I told them and they were really friendly, asking my advice on kimono for a souvenir. It was so sweet to be able to help them and the lady was delighted with the one she chose. Inside, while I was shopping, I ended up helping a European guy choose a yukata for himself. Had a nice chat with the shop staff about the pieces I'd chosen, and they gave me a free fan to go with them! I love that place, there are always foreigners around the bargain bins outside (so it's nice to be able to help them, and of course I buy stuff from there, too haha) but there are high quality items inside for the more serious collector, too.
Back at my hotel, I had an unexpected bit of trouble trying to have my suitcases delivered to Kansai airport by takuhaibin delivery service. Usually, this is something that hotels and shops do as a matter of course, but the manager of my hotel was particularly grumpy and unobliging, even though I was speaking Japanese and asking ever so politely. Eventually, after insisting and showing him the web page in Japanese which states that the airport will happily receive suitcases, he shoved the necessary forms at me. When I asked if he might help me fill in the forms, he grunted me towards another member of staff, who was much more helpful but tried not to appear to be (presumably because the grumpy boss was there). Found the whole debacle quite upsetting as it's unusual to get such bad service in Japan so it felt quite personal, although maybe he's that way towards everyone...?
Didn't sleep well as I had to be up bright and early to catch the shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, and I didn't trust the hotel manager to give me a wake-up call! Wanted to look out for Mount Fuji again, but again I slept as we whizzed past.
Wakako and I had arrange to meet at Kyoto Station, but so had everyone else by the looks of it, and I panicked "how am I going to find her, it's full of Japanese people?!". Turns out she'd been panicking "how am I going to find her, it's full of foreigners?!". We'd not seen each other for 6 years, so there was a lot to catch up on and we started by wandering round Chion-ji handmade market in the sauna-like heat. Waka used to be this market's official photographer, so she knows EVERYBODY there. To be honest, she seems to know everybody in Kyoto and is always bumping into acquaintances.
One of the stallholders lent me a washi paper sunhat and one of the stewards serenaded me with Beatles songs! I picked up a few souvenirs and got some good discounts, thanks to Waka. Unfortunately, I left my tablet in her husband's car so I couldn't get any photos, sorry!
After lunch, Waka led me down one of Kyoto's main tourist shopping streets to find a very special place. Off the main street is a tiny, blink-and-you'll-miss-it alleyway and at the end of the alleyway is the most perfect little garden and a traditional machiya house - the most amazing sight just yards from the bustle of the city. There is a carved wooden plaque bearing the Imperial insignia of the chrysanthemum (why did I leave my tablet in the car?!), because this place has been the official needle-maker to the Japanese court for the last 400 years! The house is a shop showcasing many types of needles, all made by hand by the same family for all those generations. The needles have a round hole rather than oval, for easier threading, and are a joy to look at and use. I bought a pack of 25 general sewing needles, a pack of 10 teeny weeny quilting needles, a box of pins and a pin with a minuscule cat carved on the end which looks like my cat. During our visit, it was good to see lots of old Kyoto ladies popping in for their needles, so it seems the business is thriving despite its obscure location.
Later, we headed to an American-style diner owned by one of Waka's friends. Since Waka is a weaver of obi belts, naturally I slept in her loom room - waaaah!
Went with Waka to the Nishijin Textile Centre. It's a little cheesy and mainly frequented by bus-loads of Chinese tourists, but hey, it's free and there's a kimono fashion show there. The first kimono on the runway was almost identical to the one I dress 'Dolly' in for my talks!
During the walk to the next place there was a cicada on the pavement so I had to grab Waka's wrist (she's scared of them, too) and leap us both into the middle of the road for safety. Danger averted, we saw this beautiful wall made of roof tiles.
"...I'll be watching you..."
Halfway through the food, the atmosphere changed as word got round that the mountain fires were about to be lit. It felt like the moments before New Year in England as we all ascended many flights of stairs to the roof terrace. One by one, the mountains around us lit up in various shapes - the kanji for 'big', Buddhist symbols, a boat...we tried to get good photos.
Talking to Kyoto Mama afterwards, it turned out she'd made all her clothes (including this tailored blouse) from old kimono fabrics. Wow, this woman is actually a genius! We almost fell over the table trying to nudge behind each other, as is the way with Japanese photos!