After leaving Kanazawa, I spent a few days travelling westwards pretty rapidly, only spending a night in each of the places I visited - but I didn’t feel hurried at all. Instead, I could settle into this comfortable rhythm of travelling, with a balance of stillness and movement, spending time alone and connecting with people. The passage of time always seems different when travelling. Days go by quickly and become weeks almost unnoticed, but simultaneously, it feels like there’s more time to do things, and they are experienced more vividly. I hadn’t remembered this state of mind for a long time, so being able to re-discover it is exciting.
(middle pic is from Kan Sawa’s Rapture, a satellite exhibition into which I wandered on my way to Kiyamachi)
From Kanazawa, I travelled to Kyoto. The annual Kyotographie festival is happening now, which was a nice discovery - I visited it last year and really enjoyed it. Mary, who I’d met in Tokyo, was also in Kyoto, so we went to see some exhibitions together. Before that, we spent the evening in Watanabe Yokochou, a tiny and loud izakaya in Kiyamachi. It was a lot of fun. I had a bit too much to drink and went for a midnight bath in a sento before bed.
The next morning, me and Mary met up again and checked out some of the free Kyotographie exhibitions around town. We started off with this one combining old shunga (erotic woodblock prints) and Pierre Sernet’s photography inspired by it.
The shunga part was very interesting, and I also appreciated Sernet’s work, although it was kind of a one-trick-pony project. I’ve been interested in shunga for a long time, and with the aid of the descriptions attached to the artworks, I was able to learn a lot more about the details and background within them; such as that they almost always contain references to the season or month with things like certain birds flying behind the window or flowers blooming. The attention to detail, the flow of lines and the colouring are really incredible. A lot of them are also really funny, and offer an interesting portal into the ways of life and the attitudes towards sexuality in their own time.
From the shunga exhibition, we walked to the Kyoto newspaper’s former printing plant, which was decommissioned in 2015. Kyotographie is lucky to have such an interesting space to use. Last year, it was used for Lauren Greenfield’s Generation Wealth exhibition, with golden runways crisscrossing the space. This year’s exhibition was created by a local artist for this space specifically, the surroundings fused with art installations to create a fascinating entity.
After seeing the exhibition, we walked a couple blocks to a really nice café called Kouso Cafe 85 and had lunch there.
We then looped towards Higashiyama, walking along the Kamo river. On the way, we found two more photography exhibitions. After having coffee in %Arabica Higashiyama, it was pretty late in the afternoon, and I figured I should get my backpack from the hostel cloak and be on my way. I had to say goodbye to Mary, but it was really nice that we could hang out more in Kyoto after meeting each other by chance in Tokyo.
From Kyoto, it was less than an hour on the shinkansen to Himeji, a mid-sized town famous for its castle. Indeed, the castle is the central fixture of the city - from the moment I got out of the train station, I saw it towering over the city, glowing bright white even at night.
I checked in my hostel and got a good night’s sleep before going to explore it in daytime. Before entering the castle gates, I spent some time walking around a peony garden. This time of year, the ground was pink with fallen cherry blossoms. Although I like sakura in bloom as much as anyone, I also enjoy the way they fly off their branches in big clouds and cover the ground or water like fairy dust.
Visiting Himeji castle and the adjacent Koukoen garden was more fun than I thought it would be. The main keep is six floors high, and there are a lot of wooden stairs to climb up. I ascended it pretty rapidly, enjoying the glimmer of floorboards in the sun and the breeze coming in from the windows. After the main keep, I explored Wo no yagura, a side building that held the residences of ladies-in-waiting. It also had some informative displays on topics like the life of Princess Sen, who has become a sort of ‘mascot’ for the castle, and the traditional crafts necessary for maintaining the castle. One tidbit I found interesting is that a paste made from boiled seaweed was an important ingredient in creating the plaster that covers the castle walls.
Going west, I noticed that the popularity of udon noodles increased greatly. Different regions in Japan have really distinct food traditions, and udon definitely seems to be very beloved around here. Most noodle shops serve freshly handmade noodles, and the texture is firm and chewy. I used to think I don’t really like udon, but I’ve changed my mind. Near Himeji castle, I had a bowl of udon with various toppings for lunch in a place where the elderly owner was rolling dough into sheets and then chopping them into noodles very rapidly - I ate while watching this, enthralled and slightly afraid for his fingers (but I’m sure he’d been practicing it for a very long time).
That afternoon, I left behind Kansai and entered Okayama prefecture, spending a night in Kurashiki. The Kurashiki Bikan historical quarter took me by surprise - I had heard it’s nice, but I hadn’t been expecting such a lovely sight. Kurashiki used to be an important centre for merchants, and the Edo-period wooden warehouses have been preserved in this canal area. Unusually for Japan, a conscious choice has been made to keep overhead electrical wires out of the streetscape here. Kurashiki also has the Ohara Museum of Art, the oldest museum for Western art in Japan. I arrived around 6pm, and the art museum was already shut, as were most of the shops, but I didn’t mind. It was nice to walk along the canals just enjoying the distinct atmosphere of this town.
I was staying in a guesthouse that had an unusually sociable atmosphere for Japan. Operating as a café by day, guests were only allowed to check in after they closed shop at 6.30pm, when everyone gathered around the table and introduced themselves.
Having such a catalyst for getting to know each other, me and a few others staying in the guesthouse that night ended up spending the whole evening together. First, we went to have some udon in a nearby shop, followed by a trip to Ebisu-yu, a sento that has been operating since the Taishou era (1912-1926). It was a really fun experience - there was no running water, and the only bathtub they had was filled with boiling hot water. All of us became bright red after spending a few minutes in the water. (Late) Shouwa-era sentos are very commonplace, but I had never experienced a Taishou one before.
After having our bath, we chatted with the woman managing it for a while. One of the girls had a son who was turning 3 the next day, and he got some treats from the manager - it was very wholesome. After a side trip to the konbini to get some snacks, we stayed up till late drinking canned highballs and chatting. It was really nice, and I got plenty of Japanese practice!