Tokyo Coffee Festival - Spring

The branches of the cherry blossom trees were speckled with tight little baubles when I headed up to Tokyo last month. For the most part they stayed that way for the duration of my time there. It might have nice to see the fluffy fireworks that broke out all along the Meguro river the following week, but somehow, that tension of being on the verge of a beginning was exactly the right tone for the trip. 

I was kindly asked by the charming Mr. Ralf Rueller of The Barn Coffee Roasters to come and help him at the Tokyo Coffee Festival. Ralf is keen to plant a flag in Japan for The Barn, and this was perhaps the first real push for presence. The Barn was sharing a tent with their collaborator Standart Magazine, who it so happens I have also done work for. The new Japanese edition of Standart was fresh off the press and so it was perfect timing for them to spread the word and reach out to the coffee community in Japan. So in this context of familiar faces on new frontiers my role was basically to be as helpful as possible, whatever that might entail.

I arrived up from Kyoto all rosy on the Shinkansen on the Friday morning, got a taxi to PNB Coffee. The owner Peter and I didn't know each other, but somehow I ended up sort of making base camp in his cafe for the day, so we got to know each other reasonably well. As it happened, PNB, which is a carefully curated cafe of Scandanavian good taste, had already unwittingly become more of an EU outpost as Standart (Slovakia/The Netherlands) and The Barn (Germany) had had all their event stuff sent there in the days prior. 

Peter and I talked Coffee Collective and paper stock while I waited for Ralf who was awol. When Ralf finally shown up, Oronamin C drink in hand - something he bought more out of bemusement than necessity - we got down to business of making sense of all the boxes. Then a bit of lunch with Peter - now it feels like I've known Peter for ages - and then the serious stuff of working out the grinds and pouring technique for all the coffees for the weekend. We did this until we were all over-caffinated and no longer able to tell wood from trees and then Ralf set about grinding the coffee while I finished the shopping. All of these rather humdrum tasks took a surprising amount of time, but by the end of the day, we were reasonably confident we were ready for the festival.

The next morning it was bright, sunny and as warm as you could hope for. I was first to arrive at The Farmer's Market in Shibuya. The market is terrifically well organised. It has great infrastructure for traders in place, just as you would see in established markets across Europe. As such, set-up played out like a symphony. (A stark contrast to the sea of chaos that was the festival at Shimogama Shrine back in January). I was joined by Kouhei Shintani of Sporty Coffee, Osaka. Another friend of The Barn, we basically met Ralf more or less around the same time. Along with Ralf, and the Standart guys, who would basically be running their own corner that was basically to be our team. Peter had warned us several times that we were going to be completely rammed with customers all day. Even knowing that I had taken that sort of lackadaisical Irish attitude that also regularly manifests itself at sporting events and other times of trial of: "Ah sure, it'll be grand. We can only do our best.". In my case, it may also be that once I saw someone cook a venison main course for 70 people in an ancient domestic-use fan oven that's left a lasting impression on me that anything is possible. 

We were indeed drawing visitors before we'd even finished the taste check and the volume of customers quickly ramped up to full capacity. TCF had anticipated this, and implemented a highly effective queing system at a distance from our tent so that we didn't get crowded in front, allowing punters to pass easily and for us to get in and out if necessary. The staff also were great to regularly check our needs. This allowed us to focus on our own tight system and get people served as fast as possible. Ralf was keen to introduce the coffees to the customers and was a bottomless well of interesting information but it was difficult to deliver both this and the actual coffee at a pace satisfactory to everyone. This is where the symbiotic relationship with Standart shone: people waiting for coffee could get drawn into the magazine. People perusing the magazine would also discover the coffee. 

The other thing that made what could have been a long flat-out slog into a pleasantly busy and energising day was the fact that we were not alone: we had a gold-star team of volunteers that helped absolutely every detail fluid and stress-free. Pouring coffee and managing the queue to either mini tasting cup or normal-size coffee, switching in at the bar so that everyone could grab a break. It was really a dream. 

We wrapped up the day on a high note and then there were a few hours to kill before the Standart Japan launch party at Blue Bottle Coffee in Meguro. I had scouted out a clean and modern sento nearby and so I passed a restorative hour or so there before perambulatlng up to Blue Bottle. The Meguro Blue Bottle is a curious building: the initial impression is a big house-y shape of glass and white. You see multiple layers and levels of space at once, and with the industrial aesthetic gives a sense of it as a hive for humans. I was especially amused by the "event pit" in the back. A concrete-cast space below street level with no real furnishings other than a few trees in oversize planters. Un-wishing to be left vulnerable out in the open, people line up neatly along the walls. Given that this was industry-based gathering where most people fit into the same age/lifestyle bracket, attendees were also for the most part, uniform in dress. (While we're on the subject of dress, I notice that the cobalt blue jacket is fashionable amongst men in a big way. I call this the factory foreman coat or the Bill Cunningham look depending on length of jacket. Curious to know if either of those were actually the inspiration for this trend). 

There was beer and coffee and coffee-inspired bossa nova (?). Everyone knew more or less everyone. Lots of nodding of heads. Many people having seen each other several times already that day. Michael and Toshi made their speeches and Standart Japan was officially launched. It's been roughly about a year since I first did work for Standart. They have come on at dazzling speed in that time. It was great to be able to be there at start of something new and special for them. Michael and I met in person for the first time late last year, two Europeans in Kyoto, and bonded over love of Japan and also martial arts. It's bizarre sometimes, how the dots join up. 

Sunday was much the same as Saturday except our teamwork had levelled up and things went so smoothly it was almost relaxed, even though the stall was busy all day long. I really have massive appreciation for how amazing and professional our team was, considering we didn't even know each other before the event. My experience of the specialty coffee world is that it's full of intelligent, charming, friendly people, and I am very happy to be part of it. The breaking down of the stall at the end of the event went smoothly and we all went our separate ways. In the Standart guys' case, back to Europe immediately. Everyone gave positive feedback of their experience and were willing to help again in the future.

On Monday, for the third day in a row, the weather was superlative, and I had a free schedule. I started at Naka-Meguro station, had a pretzel croissant (latest pastry fad?), visited Onibus Coffee and then wandered up along the river in the sun, generally headed towards Yoyogi Park. Ralf had a cupping event at PNB at noon. By sheer coincidence, I was drifting near PNB around this time so I dropped by to see how everything was. It was about ten minutes before starting; Ralf had apparently had some trust issues with the electric grinder and as result, decided to grind all ten coffees on his Commandante hand grinder. When the participants arrived, Ralf, Peter and I were still engaged in some kind of coffee-grinding relay race. Ralf stalled with first a welcome, followed by a stream which then became a torrent of information about coffee processing. There was a glassy silence which was hastily filled in with a translation and the atmosphere warmed up once again. Ralf encouraged the participants to actually get involved in the process of the cupping, not just tasting. I found this interesting and bit seem to make first-timers feel less intimidated. It was a good turn out and lots of people were keen to talk to Ralf. After this I slid off back into the sunshine and had an afternoon of adventure in Tomigaya. 

Tuesday was rainy and I hit a few places I'd been keen to see before rendez-vous with Ralf at The Local. We hung out with the lovely people there brewing coffee and talking a little business also. After that I escorted Ralf on a cafe tour until we admitted that we just wanted to be dry and warm and recover from the weekend. Wednesday we headed back to Kyoto in the morning to continue our coffee adventure tour with Cafe Frosch, Kurasu Kyoto and Weekenders Coffee and then with Elmers Green and Sporty Coffee in Osaka. It was really a singular week, even for me where normally work and fun generally mix into a grey area, I had a good time being a sort of switch board operator linking up people and bringing coffee-centric community fun. 


What's in Takasaki city, Gunma prefecture? Nothing. Oh, well, a brand new big massive sports arena, and apparently someone with just enough sway within the Aikikai organisation to convince them to hold the biggest International Aikido Conference that happens once every four years there.  

It's conveniently located less than a ten minute walk from the main station, as are all the budget business hotels. As a result, after a week I know the Takasaki train station more intimately than any station after more than a year of living in Kyoto city. So for a week my entire world was that which was within a kilometre of that station. It was a simple daily pattern comprised of a handful of basic elements roughly of equal importance: aikido, eating, laundry, bath, sleep. 

Initially when I heard about the seminar I wasn't overly excited. It sounded like a massive pain to have to travel to and stay at some nowhere place at great expense, in order to spend everyday doing what I already do everyday, except more. A brief trip to and from Ireland where I had a less than satisfactory training experience gave me a fresh sense of perspective, realising that such an opportunity to train with world-class teachers for a whole week in one place within the country I live was a real privilege and so, I bit the bullet and went.

Well, I'm terribly glad I did. First and foremost, each day four different teachers had an hour slot. So I had four case studies per day of how to teach a class. The comparisons were very interesting, especially considering the there were hundreds of people on the mat each day, different levels who may or may not be familiar with any given teacher. Generally the Hombu teachers opted for clean basics: working on movement and techniques that generally anyone should be familiar with. With so many students of different backgrounds, while for us it was familiar, it was quickly apparent that not everyone has the best grasp of the basics and have come with different ideas and aikido histories so it was challenging to figure out how to have optimum training with everyone, one person at a time.

At the risk of sounding biased, from a teaching perspective I thought Okamoto-sensei's class was one of the most well-designed. She focused on the concept of shifting weight and movement, something that can be applied to many techniques and something for people of all levels to work on. While I thought this was easy to follow, (to be fair she had been practising this kind of class at home in Kyoto for weeks beforehand so I was very familiar with what she was trying to get across), it was clear that a lot of people weren't getting it, fixating instead on the form and trying to do "techniques" in a cart-before-the-horse sort of way. Also, it was a very good demonstration in creating rhythm in a class. It was snappy with very little verbal explanation and fun. This was especially welcome after the previous afternoon's class which was tedious lecture from Asai-sensei of the German Aikido Federation. For me this was the ultimate example of how to NOT teach anything ever: complaining endlessly that students these days don't watch properly and aren't hardcore, taking ukemi on concrete and whatnot like his generation is unsurprisingly not interesting or motivating. It also doesn't really take into account that the world has changed immeasurably in the last fifty years which was very irritating. A class, especially where people have given time and money to be there for is not an opportunity for soapboxing and nostalgia. There was absolutely nothing to take away as a student which was a huge opportunity wasted, but that's his choice. I can't remember if he showed any techniques at all. He also went over time, which I also think is unprofessional and left everyone with very little time to pack up and change before the facility closed.

We saw other approaches as well; foreign teachers sometimes seemed to have a cultish following in their own country where as when one looked at their actual Aikido, well, it's different, sometimes a bit too free-form for my liking. In any case, it's interesting to see that there is all sorts out there, though privately I felt snug and reassured knowing I would be returning to the warm cocoon of Aikido Kyoto when this was over. Which in turn made me kind of feel like a stuck-up kid from a fancy private school at an inter-school sports meet.

In training with so many people, it was interesting to work out how to move as the teacher instructed while also being aware of my training partner and how they were moving and reacting to try get them to move how I wanted without being forceful, to have the best possible training with each person, constantly negotiating through movement. Okamoto-sensei sometimes says to us: if you have something to say, say it through your Aikido. Particularly after sitting a few lecture-type classes I could really appreciate this idea. 

Living in the isolated bubble of Takasaki for a week was also good training of living in the moment and not getting caught up in the past or the future. Just focusing on the task and the partner in front of me. It was also a fantastic opportunity to meet of Okamoto-sensei's international contacts. The teacher she visits in Australia, Christian Tissier-sensei and his students of course and other friends like Janet-sensei from Greece. I seem to be good at finding very niche interests where that it's relatively easy to get to know the whole international community in that area (like specialty coffee). Even with people from the other side of the world that you're meeting for the first time, you find you'll have a mutual connection somewhere. It's rather heartening I feel, to make those kind of connections. For me one of the interesting things about Aikido is it's about how something can happen out of a connection with another person. That energy that's created from basically nothing is really fascinating to me so naturally I like to broaden my network of like-minded people also. You never know when and how but magic stuff can come from connections so it's always worth having them.

Even with people I didn't actually talk with, once I had enjoyable training with a person, quite often that person would seek me out again another day. Until near the end of the week I didn't train with Aikido Kyoto members at all but being away from our routines at home but there also there was a sort of sense of unified spirit what made the experience worthwhile. 

Here's a little comic I did of the basic daily schedule:

Kamome Cafe

Kamome Cafe (Seagull Cafe) was a neat little project that happened in August where I managed to channel all my interests and skills into and produce a satisfying result. I ran a pop-up cafe in Nishijin, Kyoto for fours days by myself, where I came up with the entire menu, sourced all the ingredients directly from local farmers and served The Barn coffee from Berlin. The event, in a way, was a manifestation of my convictions on which I generally operate and sort of validated them for me. For this reason it was a very important experience that anchored me in the waves of everyday life as a lone aikido kenshusei/illustrator/other, and so while these aren't dazzling insights, I feel they're worth sharing.

Saying 'yes' is generally more interesting and rewarding than saying 'no.'

My dad, for as pessimistic and conservative he could be about things sometimes, was always a man to say "yes" to a job and work out how to do it afterwards. This is a model I have also followed and has previously led me to singular experiences such as building a bee-friendly green roof on top of a shed, based on a solid week of reading books on the subject beforehand and a keen knowledge of soil and eco-friendly gardens, all for a show garden at Ireland's biggest garden show. It comes down to a sort of loose equation of balancing fun, learning and money against possibility of total failure. Generally, it's difficult to fail so spectacularly that you would actually not gain anything. If your first impression is not that something is totally and terrifyingly incomprehensible, then you can probably work something out. Similarly, when it was offered to me to do some sort of pop-up in Cafe Frosch, it was easy maths of making tasty things and having people pay to eat it vs. risk of having a stock pile of homemade meals-to-go in the freezer for several weeks after the event was over. So I said "yes" and things were in motion, as opposed to saying "no", which would have the world slightly more boring. You might think that it would be maintaining status quo but I think not doing something has as much an effect on your life as doing something, but in a much more negative way, and the more the pattern repeats, the smaller your world gets and you are constantly haunted by regret. Scary.

Communication is key, especially when you're drowning in a swap of personal trauma.

This was early summer and we were still a ways off, just having idle conversations about a concept and things I like about Ireland and cafes. Then I got blown rather drastically off course: I had a near mental breakdown due to stress in other areas of my life. I was nearly incapable of even being in public without fear of suddenly breaking down crying, at home I spent most of my time sleeping. I certainly wasn't planning my event or even thinking much further ahead than two days time. In this time Sumi-san, the owner of Frosch, was incredibly supportive and said that if I didn't want to do it it was fine. This constant stream of communication in the run-up was very important. In Frosch I felt very free to be myself, whatever kind of pathetic snivelling creature that sometimes meant I was, and while I wasn't sure if I would have the mental strength to do the event, I frequently had fun conversations with Sumi-san about what kind of things would be interesting or delicious. Thanks in no small part to her outstanding support as a friend, I eventually overcame my other problems and became mentally healthy enough to say with confidence that the Cafe was definitely on. 

Starting with blue sky is fine. Then get some structure, or find someone who can make you have structure. 

My concept for the cafe pop-up started off rather unwieldy. Not satisfied with putting my cooking, cafe and people skills to use all day, I wanted to make as much of the time as possible to play out what I felt were all Ireland's strengths, turning to my other loves: art and craft. I wanted to do screenings, maybe talks introducing things and people I felt worthy of note, maybe hang artwork, maybe MAKE artwork. At this point Sumi-san pulled me back down to earth saying that it was probably impossible to do everything at once, but there would be more opportunities in the future for such events. I think she was also worried I would overwork myself again to the detriment of my mental health. I listened to her on this and shelved my extracurricular plans for another time. 

I wanted to exhibit lots of artwork but in the end I just sold the tote bag I had designed for The Barn Berlin. Thanks to them for sending me over a few.

I wanted to exhibit lots of artwork but in the end I just sold the tote bag I had designed for The Barn Berlin. Thanks to them for sending me over a few.

Going back to the food, I had tons of ideas and lists and recipes but I hadn't quite worked out a menu. Here Sumi-san presented me with another challenge so pedestrian, it hadn't crossed my mind for even a moment: to come up with a "theme" for my event and to introduce it and myself with a blurb for the Frosch homepage and other advertising. The reason being, she explained, for the Japanese customers to get an easy handle on what the event was about so they would come. I was so focused on making the event fabulous I couldn't imagine having to explain to anyone why it was fabulous. It was even more troubling to have to introduce myself to a general audience, having many different identities depending on what day and even what time of the day it is. After struggling for a while to express my multi-coloured aikidoist/illustrator/foodie-self in a way that wasn't stressful to read, I settled for what seemed to me the almost comically understated: "Robin from Ireland". 

Building imagery on Instagram leading up to the event.

Building imagery on Instagram leading up to the event.

As for a theme, I felt I had already sorted this one ages ago with my fixation on the pleasing sound of "Kamome Cafe". For me, nothing says "Dublin" like a seagull trying to take a bit out of your sandwich or glare menacingly at you from the street curb by the garbage bags while you sit outside drinking a coffee. I then extrapolated on the tenuous connection between seagulls and Summer, the sea and nostalgia for Europe. This is the sort of vague image Japanese people tend to like and I felt like it was one of those cultural loops you just have to jump through to make things run smoothly. No one was going to actually cross-check the relevance of menu items to the theme. 

This was all a domestic bit of game-playing and it was probably good to have had a steady hand on my shoulder to guide me through it. Being a bright young upstart, I can tend to not be bothered by or even notice conventions, quite happy to blaze a new trail without thinking to look back and see if anyone is willing to follow. Even the concept of a "pop-up" was something that had to be explained as a "limited time" experience because Pop-up Culture is only just starting in Japan right now. 

Trust yourself, your instinct, your experience. If you think you can do it, you can do it.

This sounds terrifically cliched and can actually be hard to follow through on but it turned out to be true for me. In the two weeks leading up to the event I became busier than I have been all year. I was literally working from the time I got up in the morning till after midnight everyday on an unrelated but total dream project. I scheduled to wrap up with that project mere days before the event started. In this time I could not prep for the cafe and still didn't have a set menu. I wasn't entirely sure what vegetables my farmer friends were going to provide, and when they did give me lists of what was on offer, I gave back completely arbitrary numbers for how much I wanted of things based on thoughts like "it's useful to have a lot of that" or even simply "tomatoes are great at this time of year".  

About two days before I had settled on four sandwiches and then a changing salad menu depending on what I had to hand. This way I still didn't have to work out exactly how to use the vegetables until the day I was using them. When it came to the day before and I saw the mass of produce I had to get through I questioned myself, wondering if I had been a bit too eager. It seemed like mountains of produce and I felt an immense pressure to not waste one precious bit of it. Miraculously, I wasted nothing. The amount I had sustained me perfectly over the four days without having to buy anything extra or be left over with anything. Of course it's probably less of a miracle and more a result of years of estimating quantities of food with Kevin in Dublin and also being a food waste fanatic - once, in third year of college I accidentally let a one euro box of Tesco button mushrooms go bad because they got lost in the depths of a shared fridge. I will remember them forever. Also juggling the menu so I used less or more veg day on day. The last day I made a kicking minestrone and put it on instead as one of the salads. I had also made a focaccia so I could offer a soup set. This flexibility day on day to offer the best of what I had to hand was deeply satisfying. 

The kitchen work itself was also terrifically therapeutic. I had not worked in this systematic way of prepping and making mise-en-place for a long time. Getting in early and doing that mindless stuff like chopping, frying, boxing things while listening to music I like over the cafe sound system was familiar and comforting and made the space mine. Each day, look at the remaining vegetables and decide the salads, write them up, make up more of whatever I was low on, check the carrigheen puddings - probably the only really Irish and "on-theme" thing on the menu. Each day was a little better and more organised and delicious than the last. Each day in I added and took away based on what worked and what didn't. The zucchini cake that appeared on the second day made up for the failed cinnamon scrolls.

The first day was a rush as a lot of friends came to show their support and was a bit hectic, but from day two I was organised enough to be able to do everything myself without being stressed out or making people overly wait. That confidence that comes from getting through each day at a profit by yourself from things you made is probably one of the most valuable experiences for me this year.  

It's all about the people.

Oh god, it really is so very much all about the people. It may have been just me standing behind the counter but if it wasn't for Sumi-san, Ralf of The Barn Berlin, Kevin answering my questions about things at all hours, my produce-supplying friends, and then of course most importantly all the amazing people who came and ate and drank coffee at the cafe it would have been nothing. I really felt a powerful sense of gratitude to those people everyday. 

Since quite a number of years ago I've been doing food and event related projects in Dublin and always it's been about having a network of great people to work with, to call on, and then a great network of friends and supporters who are rooting for you that have made it brilliant and successful. For about a year I worked at a Kyoto style bar/restaurant that has been running ten years. I saw how the regulars were the ones that really made the restaurant turn over on a daily basis. The life-blood of the place. Here also, when stuck Ken-san, the owner occasionally calls on ex-staff friends to help out and has helped out at their places in return. So for me, this was an unquestionable truth: no man is an island, your livelihood, especially in this kind of business IS your social connections. You have to love them and respect them and they'll pay it back. 

However back in the dojo, where most of my life happens, someone who I respect a lot told me that they felt the key to success was to have a compact life with as few social connections as possible and that getting involved with people was messy and distracting from our sole pursuit of aikido. I had struggled for quite a long time to see how that made any sense, especially as aikido is about connecting with people quite physically.

In doing this event, I was blown away by how many people went out of their way, brought friends to eat my food. People I've known for only a year or less wanted to come and spend time in the little world I'd created for four days. I got amazing feedback like "It was delicious and a great chance to catch up that friend, I haven't seen them for ages, thank you!". One person came every single day in order to try all four sandwiches. And finally to top it all off, on the last day three Japanese people my age came in and stood at the counter and asked if I recognised them. We last saw year other maybe five years ago when they were studying in Trinity College Dublin and I was a member of the Japanese society there. We hadn't really ever been in touch since then but they had seen the event over Facebook and as they live in Kansai they came to show support. I dunno, maybe I am easily impressed but I think that's absolutely amazing. With that I felt very decisively that I was fucking right. It all starts and ends with the people. If you meet amazing ones, hold on to them no matter what. Even if it's just a tenuous Facebook connection. 

So once again, a heartfelt thanks to everyone who made the Kamome Cafe project a success. For each thing I served, I honestly feel like I got back double. Thank you.

So that's the story of Kamome Cafe. I hope there was something in there for you. For me it was the start of a huge turnaround in my life here in Kyoto that's made me happier and more confident in my strange life choices. The next part will be the sister event in Dublin: Kyoto Soul that happened two weeks or so later. Stay tuned!

Cafe Frosch 7th Anniversary Party

It's been about six months since I've posted here. Bad form. I do have an excuse though if you're interested: I have been insanely busy. All the time. No seriously. My schedule is still jammers from here on, but I'm going to elbow in here with this little report on Cafe Frosch's party which I was heavily involved in. I made the above flyer, I was also asked to make a cake, take the photos and MC on the night. In comparison to my daily amount of tasks in general it actually didn't seem like a lot at the time... anyway. Normally I just work there three hours on Sunday talking my head off to Sumi-san the whole time.

A small introduction to Cafe Frosch. It was set-up by the Sadahisa sisters in an old machiya house in the northern Kyoto district of Nishijin. I actually wrote a rather detailed article about Frosch HERE. (This blog project was halted unfortunately so I haven't been able to talk about it as such but please do check out this article; I gave it socks.)

Next I decided we needed a cool image for the banner on the Facebook event page and got another Frosch regular with a good camera, a French student called Lili to take this frog picnic photo, making use of the substantial frog collection of the cafe. The little guy sitting on the tatami mat by himself - Sumi-san calls him the god of the cafe.

Finally on the night I had to take photos with a camera that I haven't touched since it came in to my hands. As such the results varied, but generally represented the night rather well I felt:

I will do my best to catch this blog up with other things I have done lately. Ahh where to start?

The Escapist

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.


They often brag that Japan has four distinct seasons unlike Ireland, and indeed, it did neatly switch from Autumn to Winter overnight here in Kyoto. Winter, as we all know, is porridge weather. Unfortunately though, porridge is not really heard of here in Japan - to get across the idea you'd have to say something clunky like oats-mugi okayu. This is the first time I felt that something I take as the most normal of dishes might be quite foreign and strange to some: when the name has to actually explain what it is in the culinary terms of another culture; that's when you feel it.

I'm sure porridge is yet to have its boom in Japan - seeing as it's often eaten in the ever-trendy Nordic region - but for the moment it remains rather obscure and therefore difficult to obtain without laying down a few Noguchis. What I'm getting at, Irish people, is that you should be bloody glad of your delicious and cheap Flahavans Organic Jumbo Oats: 1kg for about 2 quid. If you're not that fancy you can get more for less of course but for me even the regular sized organic oats are a serious compromise. Here you pay twice the price for the half the amount of tiny powdery tasteless American oats that come in a horrible silver resealable plastic bag - the concept of paper packaging is something the food industry really struggles with in Japan - which is covered in words telling of the nutritional wonders of this strange matter to an assumed ignorant average Japanese shopper. 

So while I can't enjoy the delicious porridge that I now have an even greater appreciation of, I will share my favourite recipe for you at home to enjoy. I can't remember when I started making porridge like this, it happened at some point during college. At some point Flahavans Jumbo Oats, a Tesco bag of lunchbox apples, raisins and ground almonds from lidl came together in a holy union that was delicious but also effective both nutritionally and economically - I recall it worked out as something like 7c for breakfast. Once I graduated from college I became more accustomed to buying apples at Temple Bar market and upgraded from the dubious and often disappointing Cox to bright, sweet, yet tangy Elstars. Toppings also vary based on availability on a given morning but nuts and seeds are the way to go. Ok this is it:

Robin's Apple Porridge

  • Flahavan's Jumbo Oats - about a cup, or a handful and a bit, more accurately.
  • One apple of your choice: I recommend Elstars. Stay away from Pink Lady whatever you do.
  • Half a lemon
  • A scattering of raisins
  • About a tablespoonful of ground almonds (other options: chia seeds, toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds)
  • Option: A drop of milk. 
  • Option: Honey or Orchard Syrup
  1. Oats in pot. Add enough water to cover then some. Add the raisins and turn on the heat. 
  2. If you have a ceramic hob and it takes ages to heat up now is the time so grate your apple while stirring the porridge occasionally. Once it's grated lemon juice it so it doesn't discolour. If you have more control over the temperature of your hob, do this step first.
  3. As the porridge comes up to heat you need to keep stirring. This is really important as it makes it really creamy and stops it from sticking. 
  4. Once it's porridgey in consistency and bubbling add the apple and mix in. 
  5. Take off heat, serve up in your bowl and add toppings. It starts to set quickly in spite of the heat so that's where the drop of milk comes in. It pluses the natural creaminess of the oats and boosts the ground almonds too. Orchard syrup goes well with this but just a drop. If you fancy something crunchy, then toasted seeds and honey is for you.

To imitate this in Japan with infinitely inferior ingredients is depressing. It costs something like 3 euro a bowl and is totally off balance in flavour. I've tried to come up with the Japanese version of my cheap satisfying porridge and I reckon, for starters you'd be better off make actual okayu which is rice porridge and for extras I go with either banana and black sesame seeds or tsubu-an (coarse azuki bean paste) and kinako powder, cooked with soy milk. This, to Japanese is pretty much dessert, not breakfast. Since I prefer to not have to defend my breakfast from judgemental eyes as I'm eating it, I usually opt for the more typical natto on rice or something else savory. Though I probably needn't be so self-conscious; my housemate habitually eats processed cheese and anko on toast. I know, shocking. That's a world without porridge for you.

Aikido Doodles

I can`t remember why but I was doing aikido drawings for some reason. As Aikido consumes more and more of my life these will likely become more frequent, as well short comics about things that amused me. Also hakama are fun to draw. They`re also amazing pieces of clothing if you examine how they`re made. In general Japanese clothing is ingenius imo, It`s generally quite practical, comfortable and looks great. 

Inter rail: Prague #1

Another instalment of drawings from my inter rail trip. This time Prague.


That bridge that passed over buildings that were four or more stories high was pretty impressive. As is all the red roofs making up the city scape, broken up by the river and thick clumps of greenery. Beautiful city.

Second drawing is of one of the vendors in the main square making a traditional pastry called a trdelnik. Very tasty.


Kenshusei Life: Saturday | 研修生ライフ(土)

Finally we get to the last day of the training week. There's a zazen at 8:20 which some people go to, then class with Chris-sensei starts at the agreeable time of 10AM. Saturday is always a good day because, being a day off a lot of sempai are able to come and it's fun to train with them and you learn a lot. With so many people who have been training together for a long time, there's a good atmosphere. The format is for Chris to go through some techniques, basic stuff that people need to know for gradings and end with randori, which is also tested. Randori is where the tori starts at one end of the mat and the uke, usually about three people are at the end of the end. At the call of "hajime!" the uke go to grab the tori who has to throw them. It's a test of timing and judgement, that you go through the attackers and strategically throw them so they stay spaced out and you don't end up crowded. It's a lot harder than it looks.

Last class of the week is another weapons class, this time with Chris-sensei. Like on Friday it can be bokken or jo. Chris and Yoko have different styles of teaching. Chris is more likely to get annoyed at us for not being able to do what he's showing, which manifests itself in jovial insults. I guess it's that Irish blood. 

When that's over kenshusei do our weekly appointed dojo cleaning and then that's it till Monday. So there you have it. One week in kenshusei life. There are other things that kenshusei have to do, such as keeping the inside and outside of the dojo tidy which involve the unexciting tasks of sweeping up leaves and toilet cleaning. On golden week we had to repaint the dojo, Hasegawa has the added task of fielding all e-mail that comes in, with the help of Pierre, if it's in French. Pierre is in charge of dojo maintenance, us newbies are in charge of dealing with guests when Paul isn't there. So far I haven't been as on ball with this I need to be- one moment of hesitation where you wonder if this person is a stranger, or just a member you haven't seen before is the moment you are judged in the eagle eye of one of the more experienced members to be not doing your job at all and at warp speed they appear beside the visitor, pamphlet and newsletter in one hand and zabuton in the other. Just another thing to work on. Three years, people.

I've tried to give a clear account of the week without being exhaustively detailed and boring people but if you have any questions or would otherwise like to express your thoughts having read this series of posts, feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for reading!

Kenshusei Life: Friday | 研修生ライフ(金)

Friday training is unique in that it's the only day that happens at the Budo Centre. That sounds cool, and in fact there is a really gorgeous old style Japanese building on the grounds that's used as a training space. For our usual weekly visit however we train in basically a generic sports facility. We have to put down the mats before class and take them up afterwards which is a bit of pain but the Budo Centre is only 30 mins by bike which is more than reasonable considering the Hirakata journey on Wednesday. We will get to use the traditional building soon though for our upcoming international seminar so that will be something to look forward to. 

The nice thing is that the space is quite big compared to Nishijin so even if there's a lot of people it's comfortable. 

This class is an hour and a half, then there's a short break and then there's weapons class. This is separate to regular training and you have to apply to be in it because due to the obvious fact that it's a lot of people swinging weapons around, space is limited. This class can be either bokken which is a wooden sword or a jo which is a wooden pole. You've seen them in a martial arts film at some stage surely. 

Weapons class is difficult. There's a certain amount of transferrable knowledge but it really is a different beast. I speak from the point of view of a person who never did weapons until I came to Kyoto. Many dojos don't really go in to them too much.  

So we bash away at that for another hour. Usually some basic movements, some drills then some exercises and then maybe, just maybe we might do something that, well, looks cool I guess. I'm not sure what weapons mean to me yet so I'm quite happy to do the static exercises while I figure out if it, as head of animation in college, Keith Foran used to say; informs some other part of my training. Right now all it does is give my arms a serious workout, though it is getting more fun as I no longer have to think too hard about holding the bloody thing the right way or not drop it or something like that.

And then that's it for Friday. Then I usually get home pumped to do stuff then run out of energy right after I put my dogi in the washing machine and just lie on the floor instead. One more day to go!