As a devoted Monocle consumer I awaited my copy of The Escapist with a sense giddy anticipation, ready to bask in the “sunshine on paper” as it was described on Monocle radio, and at the same time with an inward sigh thinking that’s probably as close to a summer holiday as I might get: aspirational window shopping from my utilitarian accommodation of the kenshusei shisetsu, a world away from the Nice Things and Beautiful People usually fill the pages of a Monocle publication.
At that time I had forgotten that, in a sense I was already living The Escapist dream. I escaped the nine to five about two years ago, first getting by somehow while having all sorts of food-centered adventures in Dublin, now, I’m operating even further outside the normal framework. Indeed if I chose to I could phrase my current situation rather grandly: an aikido practitioner living in the traditional, machiya-lined northern part of Kyoto city on a intense training program to become a professional martial artist. I could curate my photo uploads to snaps of the Budo centre’s traditional-style training hall, the Kamo river, leafy temples and tasteful cafe interiors (and in fact for the most part I do). None of this really speaks anything of the financial uncertainty, the utilitarian dojo-owned share house designed by the ergonomically illiterate, or the strict training schedule which makes up the greater part of daily life. It’s living the dream, but the dream is actually tough going. Meanwhile, all that nice cultural stuff just sits in the background out of focus - Kyoto becomes a fishbowl where you just go around and round in the same circles week on week while the heat steadily rises and then remains trapped by the surrounding mountains.
This unseen, unglamorous daily reality is taken to extremes once the summer sets in proper: shedding litres of sweat in a tatami lined box with about twenty other people, throwing and taking falls, trying to aim your landing a few centimetres away from the visible print of someone else’s sweat drenched dogi. Any exotic thrill of living in Kyoto for martial arts is soon lost in that unforgiving heat bog of a city where temperatures sit at 35 degrees Celsius. The mere act of bowing in at the start of training produces visible beads of perspiration and in the time you’re not dragging yourself up from a pool of your own sweat after taking break falls over and over again in the dojo, your main preoccupation is laundry and the efficient rotation of dojo wear.
So when The Escapist arrived I was more than ready to be invited to feel the breeze of Beirut while lying on the floor my room underneath underneath the air conditioner. As it happened however, I got a slice of the real deal - to take my own journey that was very much in the spirit of the magazine.
A few days after the magazine arrived, due to carelessness on my part, my travel arrangements to an eight hour aikido seminar in Odawara were voided. At first I was furious at myself for losing out on 2000 yen overnight bus hell; due to spending most of our time on unpaid training, we kenshusei are generally in a perpetual state of poverty. This rules out flashy options like the Shinkansen, but, when I talked with the others I was reminded that August is the season to buy a Seishun 18 ticket in Japan. For about 10,000 yen it can be used for five journeys on any local train. A nice feature is that multiple people can use the same ticket (each counting as one of the five journeys) so, with two of my fellow kenshusei, we bought one to take the train from Kyoto to Yugawara, a stop before Odawara, our final destination. This was due to it being cheaper to stay in Yugawara and travel forward on the day of the seminar.
Last year I Inter-railed solo around Europe, and as such I have Passing Time on Trains down to a fine art, but I was surprised at the how fluidly seven hours passed with two travelling companions, homemade cake and a game of shiratori - though the latter was abandoned between trains after about an hour. There were many changes of trains but while they looked like an awful lot of work as a list on a timetable, in reality were very smooth and easy.
Once we arrived in Yugawara it was already dark and most places were closed, but so delighted were we to move our legs the fifteen minute walk Google maps lead us on was very agreeable. We found ourselves at a non-descript street near the edge of town where there was a Teishoku-ya - a place to get a set Japanese style set meal for a reasonable price. Having lived in Kyoto about six months now I’d become sort of desensitised to the splendour of all the shrines and temples, though walking through this new environment, I was struck anew by the pleasure of being in a beautiful place, in this small seaside town south Tokyo of all places, somewhere I didn’t know existed until the week before. The small town atmosphere with a hint of the sea - in the air but also in the pointed reminders of the sea level at where ever you looked, the streets lined with paper lanterns for o-bon and the black shape of the mountains - totally different to Kyoto - somehow more open.
At the Teishoku-ya we had a simple and delicious meal of rice, miso soup, grilled fish, a little salad and chawanmushi to the comfortable backdrop of mindless evening television. From there we contacted our ryokan owner who came and picked us up. What initially seemed like an exemplary gesture of Japanese hospitality was soon evidently more of a necessity as we rode the car up a steep winding hill devoid of any illumination.
The ryokan was old, it seemed like it might be a converted care home - the layout was strange and the owners were insistent on the use of the elevator for a journey between floors of about ten seconds by stairs. It’s selling point was the ‘mikan bath’ which was literally a big Japanese style bath filled with citrus bobbing about on the surface filling the bathroom with steamy zestiness, was a new and slightly surreal experience. There was also a coveted rotemburo - outdoor bath which we were entitled to use for a half an hour. Being the unlikely trio of an Irish woman, a Japanese man and a French man, it was delicately agreed the fairest way was to divide this time into two fifteen minute slots with me going first. Rotemburo against the clock is not exactly the gently restorative experience Japanese people get dreamy-eyed over, but it wasn’t unsatisfying.
The room was somewhat more equipped than your average European budget hotel, what’s considered the essentials in hospitality and how it varies from place to place is always interesting. Here, it seems one cannot get by without a hot water dispenser, lacquer box with full Japanese tea set, low table with big plush zabuton, in addition to the tv and hairdryer. Our futons were laid out already on the immaculate tatami. A huge window faced down on the town towards the mountain and though it wasn’t visible at the given hour, in the morning we woke to a spectacular vista, which is just what you want when you wake up in a strange place.
In the morning we had a leisurely stroll along the citrus tree lined mountain road, then took another quick soak in the baths before getting ready for an intense weekend of sweating it out on the tatami. Sitting in the wooden lined bath by myself at seven a.m. facing an unfamiliar mountain range which was vibrant in the August morning sunshine, I perused an article about Perth and felt a deep sense of pleasure at how I had come to be here, a how happy coincidence and lack of both money and expectations opened the door to an overall richer experience than the most obvious travel option. To recall the actual seminar only draws up a hazy blur of people, litres Pocari Sweat and even more actual sweat, it's the memory of the unexpected journey with two unlikely companions that lingers sweetly: sunlight citrus and the sea, and will remain something to treasure.