On the morning of December 30 we board a tiny, conductor-less train brandishing Thomas the Engine's face on its side. Looking out over the tracks, I'm immediately reminded of the little train from Ghibli's Spirited Away. I find myself thinking about how the imagined world of artists is still a reflection of what they see around them. In fact, I've thought this many times as we've been traveling, especially when a place is synonymous with one artist, like Georgia O'Keeffe and New Mexico. Here, in Japan, this train may not be under water, but it's just as cute and mysterious as the one in the film.
We sit on the peacock blue plush seats in between two doors and meditate. In my pillow coat, with my feet near the heater below the seats, I am almost entirely warm. I've found on these trains generally your butt and the back of your knees are on fire, but the rest of you stays cold. On this morning, though, I've made sure to wear every layer I own in preparation for our trip to Kurama Onsen, so I'm toasty up to my knee caps. As I meditate, I'm slowly suffocating and wishing for a breeze. All around us is stillness with no wind, and the only thing I can hear is the far-off hum of the open door alarm. Every so often, though, I'll hear the clip clop, wobble wobble of a girl in heels. If she is confident enough and walking fast enough, she'll bring with her the most delightful rush of icy air that whips under my nose. I breath in deeply and think of snow cones and snowballs and evergreens covered in a thick winter icing.
The train starts up, flooding the back of my eyelids with warm, morning Kyoto sun. The sun here is much less depressing than the winter sun in New England. It has a warm glow to it, rather than the cold, almost sterile metallic white I grew up with. The loudspeaker plays its loop of Japanese, then English. The Japanese, as always, sounds like it has smiles injected into every syllable: Hel :) lo :), the :) next :) stop :) is :)... The English is admirably horrible. After a few stops, the English disappears, and with it presumably the last of the tourists. I go deeper into my meditation. At each stop, I can only vaguely hear the buzz of the florescent lights. My butt is on fire, though.
When I finally open my eyes I can see many have nodded off around me. It seems to be an impressive Japanese skill, sleeping wherever, whenever. When we first arrived in Kyoto we saw a guy in a Santa costume at an intersection downtown passing out flyers. When there was a lull, like when the light turned, he nodded off standing up with his hand out. The second I looked at him, though, or someone walked by, he'd wake up and instantly spring into action.
Going through the turnstiles yesterday we saw a uniformed attendant in the little booth, standing at attention and saying "Thank you" to every single person who exited. Once all the people had left, he'd close his eyes and seem to sleep. But the second there was noise, the sound of voices or the clacking of heels, his eyes would open and he was on the job again.
The English starts up again: "Please exit from the door at the front of the first carriage." We pass sleepy little towns and more little towns all made of wood. “Next stop, Kurama. Please exit from a nearby door."
We arrive at Kurama precisely 29 minutes after our conductor-less train departed. As we are generally wont to do, we head out in front of all of the other passengers, hurrying up the only road in town, past the entrance to the temple and past all the closed mochi, rice cake and souvenir shops. We follow the shoulder of the road, being careful not to slip on black ice, but otherwise admiring the wooden houses with their bamboo blinds. We're in a small valley of sorts, following a road that follows a river, both of which will lead us to the onsen. The tall evergreens growing up the slopes are poker straight and covered in a fine dusting of snow. We stare longingly out at the white tips of these trees off in the distance.
The onsen is just coming to life at 9:53am on December 30. We're relieved to find it isn't crowded. We were worried there was some tradition we didn’t know about, where everyone would flock to the onsens on the last open day of the year. We're both anticipating a soak after our first ever shiatsu massage yesterday. I feel like I've been properly manhandled, all my muscles pressed and separated at their seams. Sometimes, in a tight spot, it felt like the masseur's hands — from far away — were poking me awake. Hello, there, muscle. Why don't you wake up and work, eh?
The outside tub is framed by pines and a wooden fence. If you face west, the air curls around your face and provides relief from the rising steam. If you face east, you can stare contemplatively at the pines above or close your eyes and attempt to give in to the heat.
There are only a few women in here with me, all young to middle-aged Japanese. A young girl who followed behind us through town is still wearing her huge, round horn-rimmed glasses, her orange hand towel folded neatly on top of her head. She's facing the icy, easterly blowing air, her arms tucked under her chin.
Each woman is in her own state of being. Those more accustomed seem to be sighing continuously, their bodies sinking deeper and deeper into the hot water with each release of breath. I, for one, am not accustomed to steamy air. I step in on the east side, the side with a single stone bench beneath the water. If I sit on the bench, my shoulders just remain above water. I hope you've been to a hot spring in your life, so you can know how wonderful it is to have your body submerged halfway. How my body can soak up heat is amazing. So amazing my favorite thing to do at a hot spring is get in and out, in and out, wearing my heat jacket until the cold finally whisks it away.
My body goes through the adjustments of comfort. For the first twenty minutes or so, I sit with my eyes closed. When I can't take it any more, I open them and cautiously survey the tub. It’s like climbing into the inside of a painting, all these young Japanese women lounging with towels on their heads, looking off at the distant pines.
I’m loosely tethered to this steaming bath, trying to keep myself in while one part of me always wants to be floating, always wants to find the surface and run away to a cool breeze. I move over to the easterly side and curl my hands around my knees, planting my butt against the bottom of the tub. This suits for a few minutes, until I feel the need to stretch my legs. So I plant them against the soft stone as the rest of me bobs gently up and down. When I can’t take that anymore, I finally turn around and put my hands on the icy ledge. Wow. Is. That. Amazing. I feel like a stupid newbie, not able to handle a bit of steam. But as I look around, I notice many of the other women have gotten to the same stage. They're still soaking, but their body language says otherwise. Some of them are nearly climbing out of the tub, their elbows thrust out far onto the ledge and their legs bent at odd angles. We look like funny crabs, really, cooking in a stew. Others have already left the tub and are practicing some lengthy bathing ritual at the shower heads by the wall. Some of the women seem to sit there far longer than they soak, leaving me confused about the real purpose of an onsen visit.
The clock on the wall says it's nearing time to meet Matt, so I get out and sit on the bench by the lockers. I sit and I steam and I smile and try not to make eye contact with the women around me, so as not to disturb their soaking meditation. Then I rinse off in a rather more lazy fashion, hoping no one will notice. I don my yukata, reciting silently about wrapping left over right, since right over left has something to do with funerals and is therefore quite taboo.
We both attempt not to flash people in our blue-and-white yukatas as we sit down on pillows to eat our lunch in the restaurant. There's some confusion over ordering vs. having a reservation, and we bumble the whole bit, but eventually they look up the western name on their sheet and match it with our glowing, white faces.
What proceeds is a splendiferous meal of chicken bits and foraged mushrooms and greens all simmered at our table in a light chicken stock inside a small pot with a domed lid. After the waitress comes and lights our little burners aflame, we take many peeks before determining that the chicken pieces are properly cooked but still tender. There's also rice in a small bowl with a wooden lid and a wooden spatula, that's topped with more chicken bits and foraged vegetables.
We rush off to take a final dip in the more effervescent indoor tub. After twenty minutes of soaking, we're properly plumped and softened. Our belly's full, our faces sufficiently warmed from the baths, we dress and walk out into the cold air once more.
Over the next couple of days we go on many wanders in pursuit of what New Years means to the Japanese. Well, Kyotoites, anyway. What we find, as we've found on so many wanders in Kyoto, is a rich history of food and temple going. Which isn't so dissimilar from every other day in Kyoto.
On my birthday, December 31st, we meet our friends, the Mizumotos, for dinner at their house out in the west of town. They've made us feel so much at home this last month. We can't imagine how we'd feel without them.
Each bite of our meal represents a wish for the New Year: kazunoko (herring roe) for many children, datemaki (rolled omelette) for auspicious days to come, kuromame (large sweetened black beans) for good health, bodra (simmered cod) in the hopes of eating well in the New Year, tazukuri (dried baby sardines) for a good harvest, and gobo (burdock) for its roots and stability. This is followed by toshikoshi soba (buckwheat noodles in soup), the long noodles helping you cross over into the next year.
And then there's cake. CAKE. BIRTHDAY CAKE. And a green, Japanese Godzilla that growls and says tanjōbi omedeto gozaimasu (happy birthday).
We head out at 10:45pm for an adventure, in pursuit of a bell that will chime 108 times, or thereabouts, to reign in the New Year. We've picked Kurodani as our destination, because we've heard it's quieter than some of the packed temples in town. After a half hour drive to the far east of town, we arrive at the temple with equal time to spare.
There's a long line of well wishers, well over 108, waiting their turn to ring the bell. It looks like rain, so we hem and haw a bit. We collect our ticket and wait in line, but that's when Matt hears the chanting. We bail on the line and follow the guttural sounds of the monks up to the bell.
The moment of New Year is sort of lost on the crowd, somewhere between one chime and another. We count down in a whisper and give each other high fives. The Mizumotos make their way home. The rain comes in fits and starts. We walk to the main temple and sit, Japanese style, on the mats, listening to the chorus of monks. Families comes and go, making their first temple visits of the year.
We make our way home behind the last remaining party-goers without parties, who are left wandering down the empty city streets. Some become brave and call out "Happy New Year!" in English, before disappearing anonymously into the night. The subway is running late. We wander into a local temple by our apartment. We toss a coin into the shrine box and ring the little bell, then drink a bit of sake out of what looks like a tea cup saucer. A gentleman suggests we cozy up by the fire, which we do. We smile about the little fire extinguishers and tiny pails of water laid out in front of the fires, just in case. A local places logs on the unstable, burnt frame of the fire, and the whole thing spills out onto the ground, sending a plume of sparks up into the sky. All is well. We walk out. Someone is singing and riding a bicycle. We find home, and rest.
On the afternoon of the 2nd we go forth in search of temples where people make their first visit of the year. On a bus, heading towards the Philosopher's Walk, I hear them call out for the Yasaka Shrine. We decide to follow the crowds across the street into the gate's mouth. I've never been to a city where one moment can be quiet and still and the next utterly overwhelming. Where one moment I can be walking freely, and the next be pushed and shoved and snaked in line by someone half my size. It's an incredible display of contrasts. But, then, one can't really exist without the other, can it? I can't know peace and quiet without the chaos. So we allow ourselves to be taken by the crowd and make a slow circuit around the grounds. If I didn't know otherwise, I'd tell you I'd visited a local fair where everyone was playing the raffle. But instead of prizes, people wish for good husbands, good health, good fortune. They throw coins and offer up candies and toys. And before I know it we've reached the other side of the shrine, and truly passed into a new year.