Up to this point in my trip, I had mostly been sightseeing and exploring Japan via inanimate objects. After living in Seoul for a year, I needed the four weeks of decompression. Four weeks with little to no human interaction. People often have a hard time understanding this part of me. There are often times in my life when I just need to get away from everyone and every thing. This doesn’t reflect on anyone else but me.
With my soul cleansed and my body relaxed, it was time to branch out a little and really meet some people. My Japanese friend I had met earlier in Kyoto invited me to a big gathering in central Kyoto along the river. I was quite excited about this outing. It would end up generally reflecting a shift in the nature and framework of the rest of my trip. Although I would still continue to soak in culture and explore the hidden places in my soul, I also would start to, for lack of a better phrase, party my ass off.
So I headed out of my hostel, grabbed a bit of lunch, and headed to the river to meet Koji. I stopped in at the Family Mart adjacent to the river to grab some snacks and some beverages. My choice of beverage at the time was a few small bottles of sake. A great way to start off a celebration, I thought. I ran into Koji at the store, conveniently doing much of the same. We quickly paid for our items and made off for the picnic.
Having a difficult time getting in touch with anyone, we decided to just do it the old fashion way and search. We found a couple of couchsurfers who seemed to be looking for the gathering as well. We decided to combine forces and our pack now had a grand total of five people. I feel obligated to inform you that I was not the least bit impressed by this sum and my only comforts at the moment were the two bottles of sake quietly calling my name. Luckily, we managed to get in touch with someone from the gathering. We had entered upon the wrong section of the river. Just across the way, we located a rather large gathering of people, both Japanese and Gaijin (foreign).
This was much more to my liking. We made our way over to the beautifully-crafted blue tarps, which at the current moment in time were hosting around a hundred people. We grabbed a piece of tarp and made friends quickly.
I may sound in many of my posts as if I love every aspect of Japan, Japanese society and Japanese people. This is not the truth, although I do really love many aspects of Japan and its people. One area where it is difficult, as a foreigner who doesn’t speak much Japanese, is making friends. The Japanese are some of the nicest people I have ever met, but they are also extremely shy especially when it comes to speaking English. I’ve heard this has something to do with the people not wanting to make mistakes for fear of losing face. I can sympathize with this view, but, nevertheless, it presents a difficult barrier for me to break through.
Enter the Hanami Picnic, a couchsurfing event populated with people from Japan and other areas of the world with one major theme in common: the love of travel and all things related to travel. Here I was instantly engaged by several people wanting to know all about the blonde-haired newcomer (Yes, blonde and blue eyes are a rarity in the Asian portion of the world. And yes, I absolutely use it to my advantage. Don’t judge me. You would too.)
I met so many wonderful people that day. I formed friendships with many that I keep up even today, more than six months later. The picnic carried on all day and only ended as night started to creep over the river and mountains. I hadn’t planned on being at the picnic for such a long time. Still, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to all of my new friends so we all headed off in search of a good restaurant. Even though our group was considerably smaller now, it’s still ridiculously difficult getting a group of more than five people organized and on the same page. Add in a little alcohol and what you have is just a group of people aimlessly wandering the streets of Kyoto rambling and attempting to communicate incoherent thoughts.
Luckily, we finally found an izakaya (Japanese style restaurant & bar) and had a delicious meal. Dining in Japan differs very much from the west. It is not common for each person to have his or her own plate. Instead, you order many dishes for each person to share. It takes some time to get used to, however it creates a much more communal and festive atmosphere in my opinion. At dinner, there was one low point, however. I eventually learned that I was a good eight years older than everyone else at the table. Yikes.
We had to say goodbye to some of the people in our party. It was nearing midnight and those who didn’t live in the greater Kyoto area had to catch the last remaining train to their homes. The remaining few milled about for a while contemplating what to do. The weather was wonderful and we didn’t feel like calling it a night. I suggested going to the local Lawson, my favorite convenience store in Japan, to get a few beers and make our way back to the river to hang out.
At the river, we managed to get into more trouble. Meeting random Japanese people, some of which spoke a little English, but most of which didn’t speak any. It’s funny how after a few drinks, you’re not afraid to talk to strangers anymore. We met a team of tennis players from a local university. They were quite interested in practicing their English with me. I’ve been teaching English for more than two years now, so it didn’t bother me too much. At some point, my American partner-in-crime, Sam, was talked in to running through the river with some other random person. Not sure who was to blame for that (could’ve been me), however it produced some photographic moments.
In the end, I made it back to my hostel for a good night’s sleep, well I guess it was more of a good day’s sleep at that point. I slept until around check out time, grabbed my backpack, and headed to Osaka. I had a flight early the next day out of Kansai International Airport and it was easier to make it to the airport via Osaka. Plus, I had planned to meet up with a friend in Osaka that I had met the day before. My last day in Japan was wonderful. I strolled around Osaka with my friend, ate a delicious dinner, and slept in a decent hotel.
Kyoto has left a burning hole in my heart. I feel so at home, so comfortable while I’m there. It’s not the most exciting city on the planet, but it is surely one of the most peaceful. Culture is everywhere. History is weaved into everything you see. It’s difficult to say whether you will enjoy living somewhere until you have spent an extended amount of time there. However, living in Kyoto is a dream of mine. One day, I’ll fulfill that dream.
Early the next morning, I headed off to the airport. I had to say goodbye to Japan. I really wasn’t ready to leave. I wish I could have stayed much longer, possibly forever. However, I just didn’t have the money to stay, plus I had to start the next portion of my journey: Southeast Asia. My first stop would be Bangkok.
Next time on This Is My Travel Blog: A short return to Bangkok: Seven Days of Madness