Did you know Japan has four seasons? If you didn’t, it will get shoved down your throat as a surprising and/or interesting fact in nearly every class you take at a Japanese university. Oh, you did? Is that because nearly every country on earth also has four seasons? Well that can’t be true. The Japanese people told me Japan is special for having four seasons, and they’re sensei, which means you kow-tow to them using honourific language called keigo, of which a typical exchange translates thusly:
INT. CLASS – MONDAY MORNING
Simon walks in holding his bag like a diligent student. He must now greet his teacher in the traditional style.
SIMON: “Prithee to my greatest teacher. Mayhaps I could enquire how ‘tis with you this blooming vernal morn.”
The teacher is displeased with an insufficient level of grovelling. She waits, staring, for Simon to properly complete his journey to the verbal dirt.
SIMON (CONT’D): “Yes my liege, surely you art someone four station levels above me in society. Were the sun and moon to shine brightly as one in the zenith of this firmament, neither source shining upon me could glow such as the purity of your enlightened soul glows upon my face.”
Simon realises he has used desu – polite but not self-flagellatingly polite Japanese. The teacher corrects him patronisingly.
SIMON: “De- …degoza—oh screw it.”
TEACHER: “Sit down foreign boy. Now, children–”
SIMON: “—university students.”
TEACHER: “—let’s rote memorise example sentences of grammar points, instead of learning the language according to accepted linguistic pedagogical methods.”
In conclusion, if there were a fifth season, Japan would have it, because it’s special.
WORK WORK WORK THAT SAKURA
One of Japan’s super-special seasons is hanami, or sakura watching, season. Since it is also a season, it seems Japan’s fabled four are ‘Spring, Summer, Autumn, and FlowerViewingPicnics’. But then, they also have Winter, so maybe Japan does have five seasons. Sushi for thought.
Last month was hanami season, so Marcus, Rosanne and I decided to make the most of it and go to various places in Kyōto famous for their propensity to bloom into pink for a few weeks each year. Rosanne Woldhuis is a Dutch exchange student also living at Maison Iwakuni, and the resident Mother Hen for a portion of the residents. People frequently turn up to her room for tea and a chat. It’s an underappreciated service when really what a dorm means is a complex full of culture-shocked gaijin. Contrary to what the long stay-earned stability of a counselor role might suggest, Rosanne had only been at Iwakuni as long as Me, Luke, or Marcus.
What Rosanne and Marcus had suggested we do, since it was Easter Sunday, was take a trip to the ‘Philsopher’s Path’, a looping walk lined with sakura trees all the way. It sounded fun. I obliged. That day wasn’t too warm – Winter still felt the predominant season in the mix, but it was better than straight after our arrival. I will admit, being choked by a whirlwind of light pink petals was not an aesthetically ugly experience, but given the romanticisation of sakura in all forms of Japanese media, the trees were underwhelming. No girls in knee-high socks bashfully confessed their high school love to me while the sun set. I began to suspect that anime did not reflect real life. Still, more data was needed. Frankly, it was all a bit like walking along the Great Wall back when we lived in China. Life didn’t feel significantly changed for having had tenuous points of contact with a definitive cultural touchstone.
Hanami season was soon to draw to a close not long after our trip to the Philosopher’s Path. It was at that time that Yuri, a girl who I met on her exchange to Victoria University (and who was in the Manga Club Luke and I founded), asked that same Easter Sunday if I wanted to go to Kiyomizu Temple with her art club. There didn’t seem to be any harm in the proposition. It would, after all, make the best of the short season.
KIYOMIZUDERA II: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO
Kiyomizu Temple a second time felt a little like I had been granted a local’s license to act haughty and disdainful. To pretend that as one had been there before, one had a certain advantage of familiarity over the filthy casual tourists and all reason in the world to act blasé about a UNESCO site. Reality was a little different. Sure, there were tourist crowds, but I found myself spending most of the time trying not to embarrass myself making simple mistakes in Japanese with this group of people whom I’d never met before and who spoke little English.
We met up at Dōshisha’s Imadegawa campus and took the bus. There really wasn’t much to think or to say about visiting a temple again, save for the usual rigmarole of tatemae questions like “what is your hobby?”, “where are you from?”, “wow, your Japanese is good” (that last one is a red flag for the most courteous and therefore least honest people – beware jouzu). Appropriate responses include, “omoshiroi/tanoshisou”, “suteki da ne”, and “tai hen”. These have been rendered in romaji so that you can feel the full painfulness of their duplicity. For women, add no and wa at the end a ludicrous amount of times, referring to yourself only as uchi/atashi/your-name-in-third-person. Place these on flash cards, and Voila! A full Japanese-Gaijin Conversation mad libs game is born. Play with your own family today! Side effects may include not having any real human connection, internalising totalitarian values for the smooth operation of a non-inquisitive hierarchical society, and inability to see people born outside of your own socially-constructed ethnicity as just like you.
To be fair, they did pay for my coffee at the end. Maybe a little harmless xenophobia is worth it now and then.
Possibly the most interesting part of the trip was seeing everyone get their luck, or fate, lottery tickets from the on-site Shinto shrine. Yes, that’s a Shinto shrine in the middle of a Buddhist temple complex. Yes, it’s like holding Passover dinner at the local mosque. There are about six different levels of luck, from worst to best. Tickets are further divided into subject matter. As quick background, despite having a boyfriend back in Japan, while on her New Zealand exchange Yuri had made a couple of subtle overtures to me which I pretty much pretended I was too socially inept to understand and chose to ignore. Yes, that's right, I'm not always actually socially inept. Sometimes I am pretending. So, when Yuri received the second-worst luck ticket possible, and on the subject matter of romance and love, my internal dialogue consisted mostly of chuckling and oh you have no idea huehuehue. I’m not a sadist. Probably.
Strangely enough, my camera seemed to focus and frame of its own accord on one of the girls whom I didn’t know. In many of the photos, even while trying to get a group shot or a snap of Yuri, that one girl was always the one in focus instead. I’m starting to think my camera is both sentient and heterosexual beyond good taste. See if you can spot which person. Hint: it's the glasses girl.
I wandered back home after the café visit, taking a couple of snaps of some guy fishing in the river, and one photograph which I, ‘til my dying breath, will defend as the most Kyōto photograph ever. It contains: a second-hand bicycle, hints of the river, two girls in traditional kimono, and a hard-to-spot homeless man sleeping with an umbrella who everyone chooses to pretend doesn’t exist because there is no poverty in Japan, no sir. Here it is:
Another week in April rolled by. Having caught the last gasp of them at Kiyomizu-dera, the sakura at Imadegawa campus had been stripped bare. With a gust of wind hailing in Spring proper, the final few pinkish petals blew off into the breeze when we came back on Monday morning. Winter’s chill breath was gone. The mid-term holidays were coming, and with them, heat.
「神社や景色は美しいというものの、京都の天候のに引き換え田舎の貴船は蒸し暑さが厳しいであった。」-- Excerpt from a recount.
Sweat prickled outward, pooled, collected in pores like a salt-water lawn on Luke’s forehead, droplets forming a cohesive sheen under my apartment’s fluorescent light. Golden Week, that week of bank holidays in Japan forming short reprieve for a nation of overworked salarymen and personalityless students, was upon us. Given all our sudden free time, given an entire week and two weekends with only a little homework due at the end, given the length and breadth of Japan, Luke and I had decided that the length and breadth of my room was enough for us. We hadn’t gone out at all.
That wasn’t strictly true: I had been with Marcus on a pointless trip to the Arashiyama bamboo forest. Luke had got as far as a vending machine. Finally, Marcus put his Teutonic foot down, and gave us our marching orders into Poland. We were all, he had decided, scheduled to go on a hike followed by bathing in an onsen (natural hot spring). Luke lay silently on my bed in an unmoving state of sweaty mess. I reclined in my office chair, unable to do anything but recline as the heat forced my head to limply droop like a tragic sunflower. I received the fateful call from Marcus through Line chat.
“Do you still want to go to an onsen, Simon?”
“Yeah, maybe. Yeah. I guess mrhrmghrmm”
“I couldn’t hear that last part”
“N-nothing, don’t mind me I’m just casually dying, breathing water air.”
“Great, we’re going tomorrow then?”
“Any—any details past that?” I sipped water from the side of a clear PET bottle into the side of my mouth like a legally blind and slightly handicapped otter. “Like where is it, for how long, how much does the trip cost, what should we bring…”
“–Great, tomorrow it is!” Marcus concluded the call.
Swiping out of the Line app, I turned to Luke. “Did you catch any of that?”
“Mrhrmghrmm,” he replied.
In truth, I probably did know that Luke wouldn’t be so keen on the entirely nude (but gender-separated – come on people) traditional bathing of an onsen. He rarely goes without a jacket and barely bares his arms on summer days in Wellington. I awoke early the next morning and briefly considered whether I should shave my legs since we were doing communal bathing, and Japan has a cultural thing against leg hair for some reason. I decided my arrogant rights as a gaijin to keep in a natural state outweighed any social pressures. Marcus rang again, asking if Luke was going to be ready. For my part, I sauntered down to the third floor as soon as my teeth were brushed to ask him directly.
Luke had a lot of objections and not much recollection of having agreed to anything the day prior. Of the non-ridiculous objections, most revolved around a lack of information about the precise details of the trip. As they were each answered by Marcus, by phone from the floor above, it became clear that Luke’s unvoiced reasoning was a patently absurd lack of desire to experience the visual treat of a coterie of clothes-less and inhibition-less Japanese old men inordinately interested in young foreign flesh.
Marcus and I became a Greek chorus intoning a final, unassailable point. The plan was to also go on a hike, and the onsen was optional at the end. It wasn’t a prerequisite. In the end, the hike itself turned out to be fraught with difficulty, but instead of listening to a description of the fetid conditions of three men’s chafing thighs on a mountainside, here are some pleasant pictures of the shrine preceding the climb.
See? Pleasant greenery. No red faces or huffing phlegm-filled chests or aching limbs. Needless to say that by the time we had come around the other side of the mountain, the onsen seemed more a necessity than a luxury. Luke still refused to go into the onsen complex. He chose to wait outside until after Marcus and I had finished. On our end of the narrative cut-away, I was following Marcus’s lead on everything since I hadn’t been to an onsen before. There was a small amount of fumbling with how the locker system worked, some quick outdoor showering, and then we were ready.
Sliding into the warm spring water was a salve for my sore muscles and psychological state. There were no bags to be carried. There were no more stairs, no more mountains. There was nature, the hot water, and oneself. As if to halt its omnipresent jog on the universal clock-face to take a breather, time leaned over in track pants, stretched, and refused to pass. No, it wasn’t that time would not pass; it simply did not exist for the duration, or lack of duration, that one existed in the state of a melded reality that formed where the bath ended and oneself began. I turned over in my mind whether I might secretly be the Dalai Lama. Soon the heat of the water and air together began to get to me.
“I’m going to hop out now, I think,” I said to Marcus.
So maybe not the Dalai Lama. I’m certain one of the prerequisites is having the constitution to survive the tribulations of a luxurious hot spring. Nevertheless, I at least emerged a changed man. I was going to say I emerged a man, but given the context of having just been in a compound of naked old men, the connotation would be very different and highly inaccurate. So I didn’t say that.
“How was it?” asked Luke.
I suppressed the urge to smirk with all my newfound Dalai Lama-ness, my superiority for being willing to try new things when he wouldn’t. I would rub it in. I would rub in his lack of participation with glee. “Yeah. Not bad.”
Curse my non-committal New Zealand English.
Battered, bruised, but with a story to tell now for Golden Week, the three of us sat dumbly on the Kurama station bench. The train would come soon enough. Marcus noticed the ice-cream vending machine first. I paid for him and myself. Luke bought one too. Now we were battered, bruised, and sitting dumbly on a bench with ice-creams in hand. Ice frosted up my front incisors without visible reaction from my nervous system. Sensodyne ads be damned, it wasn’t ruining my life to get cold teeth. I was too exhausted even to yelp at brain freeze. The taste of salted caramel and chocolate was more than enough to consider the afternoon to have been capped off with success. We sat there, three limp statues, bruised and battered and having been ogled by old Japanese men. But there was a sense of accomplishment about the day. A sense of contentment. Throwing the ice-cream wrapper in the bin, alighting the train, then sitting down next to two close friends in the train car, ready to feel a light thuddering underneath as we passed through a carwash roller of green leaves back to Kyōto, it all felt alright. It felt kind of like happiness.