We’ve been in Singapore for two days now. It is so different from Kyoto that our month there is already beginning to feel like a dream. Even more than usual, I’m so thankful I documented so much of it. The city was truly — as Aga commented on one of my recent posts — one of my “soul places.” In the time since we left it, I’ve realized just what that means. I have enjoyed every place we’ve visited, but some of them are dearer to me than others. In Kyoto I felt that the city unlocked something — a quality, an aesthetic, a way of being — that has always existed in me, but inchoate or dormant: an unseen potential. The city said, “I see you. Come out” — and it did. It was the same in Paris and in Reykjavík. Memories and specifics fade, but the unlocking cannot be reversed; from each of these places I carry away some new knowledge of myself and my own possibilities.
On my last day in Kyoto I ran through a full list of last-minute activities, including a lot of shopping, a trip to the Central Post Office, and a visit to a cat café. These originated in Tokyo, I believe, but Kyoto now has several such establishments. Basically they serve as venues for interacting with cats, for city dwellers who don’t have the space or the lifestyle to keep pets. This one was called Neko Kaigi and it was tucked almost invisibly into the second floor of a commercial building near the city center. It was ¥800 an hour (about $8.50 US) and you could order non-alcoholic drinks, though that was not required. I found the kitties a bit aloof, so I mostly sketched them instead of petting them. This was so fun, I ended up staying for an hour and a half.
The next morning, before leaving, I walked through the house taking photos. It was the house, as much as the city itself, that did the unlocking I described above — if we hadn’t stayed there, it would have been an entirely different experience. As I understand it, it’s an unusual house even by Japanese standards. Due to the language barrier, I don’t know as much about the house as I would like, but when I told one of our hosts how much I loved the ceilings, he said, “I think the person who built this house was very playful. Professionals don’t do this.”
At the entrance: a welcome “mat” made of stones.
Once inside, remove shoes and enter by stepping on a big rock.
To the left is a room with storage cupboards and a big desk. I used it as an office; it had the only chair in the house.
If you don’t go into the office, but stay in the entryway, you find yourself in a little room; the floor is two mats big.
Like most of the rest of the house, the walls are covered in some kind of sand with sparkling flecks.
It’s soft to the touch, like Japanese paper, and if you scrape it, sparkles fall off. I found them sometimes on the floor.
Embedded or hung on the walls are objects: an old parasol, a bit of a tree, dishes.
One of our hosts said the dishes represent the Silk Road, as they come from Iran, Turkey (I think), China, and Japan.
They think this entry room was a tea ceremony room, since such rooms are often small, and laid out so that the doors led to different rooms. In ours, the door opened to the kitchen on the right, and the living room on the left.
Typically, Japanese families spend the winters huddled around the kotatsu, a table with a heater underneath and a blanket around its sides. Though in March the weather was already warming, we too considered the kotatsu the heart of the house.
Anyway it was no sacrifice to spend time in the living room, with its many lovely details, and the low windows looking onto the courtyard (the same one where I did the big painting).
Sometimes, when I got tired in the evenings, I’d lie down with my legs under the kotatsu. I liked looking at the ceiling when I did this.
Unlike the other rooms in the house, which were fully enclosed by sliding doors, the living room was open on one side, to the kitchen.
The kitchen had only one freestanding counter and sink, a tiny fridge, and a simple shelf for rice cooker, teapot, and electric skillet.
But the shelf had an ironwork flower and vine on it, and one of our hosts told us he and his friends had put in the floor themselves.
Midway through our stay, one of our new friends lent us a toaster.
Dishes were stored in a little cupboard in the living room.
In a corner of the kitchen there was a concealed trapdoor of removable planks.
A ladder led down to the basement, which sometimes serves as an art gallery.
Off the kitchen is a little room with a sink, the toilet room, another little room with tiled wall, and then the bath/shower room.
In Japanese usage, you shower first, and then enter the tub, for soaking.
I grew very fond of my hot baths, whether I took them in this room, or walked the few minutes to the sento.
Going back out through the living room or entry to the office, there’s a steep wooden stair leading up to the bedroom.
The first time I climbed it, I was a little scared.
Over time we got used to it, but I was always still a bit nervous coming down.
In other older buildings I visited, stairs were even steeper; some were basically ladders.
The upstairs was just one big room, but every time I entered it, I was struck afresh by its beauty.
By the stairs there was a round window latticed with bamboo laced with vines,
and on the opposite wall, storage cupboards and an alcove (for ornaments, I think).
In traditional style, there were no bedsteads, only futons which were spread on the floor.
They were perfectly comfortable, as were the wool blankets and down comforters!
They were all stored in cupboards along the back wall.
I never noticed until I took this photo that there was a crane in this cupboard door-handle.
The door handles were all pleasing to look at, as were the doors (fusuma) themselves.
The ceiling beams were both straight beams and organic branches.
And this was our view out the front windows.
That morning (the 31st), we took a taxi to Kyoto Station, where we caught a train bound for the larger of Osaka’s two airports. Strangely enough, it was our first inter-city train ride in Japan. We had meant to make side trips, but we loved Kyoto so much we didn’t want to leave it even for a half-day. When the train pulled out of the station, a pair of young female attendants in turquoise uniforms stood at attention and waved solemnly to the departing passengers: bye-bye.
As we sped through the area around Kyoto, we saw the sakura in full bloom everywhere.
Meiji chocolate factory!
There was a bento shop at the station and I got some sushi for the ride. It was ¥750, about $8 US, and delicious.
The ride was about 70 minutes and since I’d stayed up late the two nights before, I found myself dropping off.
I woke when I heard Erik say, “Look! The ocean!” I was amazed to realize I hadn’t seen it since Hawaii.
I also couldn’t believe how long we were over it; the last ~20 km of the ride to the airport goes right over Osaka Bay.
We got to the airport quite early to be sure not to miss our flight. There was plenty of tasty food available, though, and a boggling number of shops. The line for check-in was extremely long. While we stood in it, we felt already like we had left Japan; after a month of a nearly homogeneous population, we were now surrounded by different faces and languages. Our flight to Singapore went through Manila; there was another flight departing at the same time and going through Taipei. The people around us represented quite a cross-section of Asia, with a significant number of non-Asians thrown in for good measure.
The flight to Manila was almost four hours, but the stopover was so brief I didn’t expect them to let us off the plane. As it turned out, we were required to disembark with our carry-on baggage, even though we would only be on land for maybe half an hour. It felt incredibly surreal to step off the plane and realize we were in the Philippines, a place that was never even on our itinerary (indeed, when I booked the flight to Singapore, I didn’t even realize there was a stopover). We were in a little section of the airport that was just for transiting passengers, with a lounge area and some small shops. I had just enough time to buy a snack (fortunately most vendors accepted Singapore dollars) before the announcement came to re-board.
When we arrived in Singapore it was just after one a.m. on the 1st. After meeting our new host, we went to bed. The next morning we went out to explore. What a different world from Kyoto. The air is warm and suffocatingly heavy with humidity. There are European-style colonial houses, shiny skyscrapers, and tons of greenery. I suspect this will not be a soul place like Kyoto, but it’s still very interesting.
Some say there’s nothing to do in Singapore but shop and eat.
Apartment view at night:
Today we went to the National Museum, which was amazing. That’ll be another post, but I’ll leave you with a few photos from the day.
The swank museum bar, Novus:
Each time we change destinations I can’t help but marvel at the quickness and ease of moving into another world. Just think, a few days ago I was wearing wool sweaters and hats, admiring the cherry blossoms, and buying washi paper from store clerks who bowed and said, “Arigatogozaimashita! Okini!” Now I am riding the subway underneath streets full of shopping malls, hearing the unique Singaporean English, and seeing many signs that are also written in Chinese, Malay, or Tamil. It’s almost 2 AM and the apartment’s tiled floors are still warm with the day’s heat. And in another eight days we’ll be in Auckland, where it’s autumn. What a journey this is.