I’ve been doing a bit of life laundry on and off all year. It started with clearing out my study and cupboards full of bumph: newspaper articles; clippings; old diaries; travel memorabilia; birthday and other greetings cards; notes on this, that and the other – lots of scrawl in lots of notebooks – and I’ve now got to the photos.
Being an old-fashioned kind of girl, I still get my photos printed off and stick them in an album. I’m not sure who is ever going to look at them but I’ve enjoyed doing a bit of retrospective armchair travel. In April 2009, I detoured via Japan on my way back to Australia from the UK.
After an emotional goodbye to my family in England and a glorious drive to Manchester Airport over the Pennines complete with daffodils, green fields, rugged moorland and country pubs, I flew to Helsinki, where I rushed around on a brief 22-hour stopover before flying onto Osaka. On arrival in Osaka, I took the train to Kyoto where I arrived around eleven in the morning in a jet-lagged haze. Confused by the maze of escalators and exits, I found myself with all my luggage (why do I ALWAYS take so much?) in a beeping and flashing electronics store.
After a few more wrong turns, I finally managed to exit the station, find the right bus, haul my luggage on board and get off at the right stop for the ryokan (guest house). Ahh, a shower and lie down at last, I thought, relieved. But no. The woman smiled sweetly, got me a cup of green tea and a biscuit and told me that check-in was 3pm onwards. She smiled sweetly again – perhaps a bit too sweetly – indicating where I could leave my luggage. There was obviously no point arguing with her so I threw myself into sightseeing. I wandered along the Philosopher’s walk, a gorgeous blossom-lined meander along the canal with temples at both ends and shrines off to the sides. From Zen gardens of raked sand to mossy tree roots, confetti-like blossoms skirting across the water and, in one shrine, a single camellia flower floating on the surface of a water butt, it was the perfect antidote to jetlag.
But by the time I collapsed in a local eaterie at 7pm with a glass of plum wine and a bowl of steaming ramen noodles, I was seriously tired and still wearing my flight clothes. But I was not too tired to chat to the owner. Well, actually, I had little option as I was the only person in there. He was a bit of a wit and on hearing I was a writer, produced a lighter. A nice bit of linguistic self piss-taking I thought. Then, teasingly, he urged me to show more enthusiasm for my meal telling me that in Japan it’s a sign of respect to slurp your soup. Hugely self-conscious (he might as well have asked me to undress), I struggled to make enough noise – it’s just so UN-English and not polite after all those years of being told to sit up straight and hold my knife and fork just so. But I did my best to schluuurp my appreciation.
Back at the ryokan, I slept quite well on my tatami mat and futon on the floor, but was so over-tired and time zone-challenged that I took a while to drop off and was fast asleep at 8am when Mrs Uemura rapped smartly on my door telling me, with thinly disguised irritation, that breakfast was served. I’d clearly transgressed a house rule. Another one. She’d already told me off the day before for wearing my outdoor shoes indoors and for wearing my indoor slippers to the loo instead of the specially provided toilet slippers. Thank Goodness she didn’t spot me mistakenly walking back to my room still wearing the toilet slippers. Too many footwear faux pas for words.
I am happy to say that the breakfast was absolutely delicious and worth dragging myself out of bed for. It started with miso soup with clams followed by rice, fish, pickled veg (delicious soft sweet aubergine) all washed down with Gen Mai Cha (toasted rice green tea). There was one other couple staying and they needed no back-up chorus from in slurping and sniffing.
After breakfast, I snuck back up to my room thinking I might just lie down for half an hour but my bed had already been rolled up and cleared away. No peace for the wicked. I was about to whinge – like Shirley Valentine – to the walls when I heard monks in the street chanting prayer requests. There are insufficient words to describe the clarity and purity of their toning. I let the sound wash over me and set off for another day of sightseeing. Stay tuned for Life Laundry No. 2.