“The shortcut to Asia”, as it was cunningly marketed by Finnair, seemed to be to fly from Geneva to Helsinki, and then on to Osaka in Japan, flying over a large chunk of Russia and over Korea along the way. Clutching my cold medication, and hoping my sore wisdom tooth will be wise enough to stop throbbing, I set off on one of those jetlag tunnels that somehow, magically, get weary travellers across continents.
A few hours later, and having played human-origami on my two adjoining plane seats while trying to sleep near-horizontally, I arrive in the bustle of Kansai airport. Aah, it’s good to be back in Japan! I was last here in 1996, an impoverished student surviving for a month on pot noodles and volcano climbing. At the time, quite understandably, it didn’t make much sense to the locals to come all this way to gaze at mountains spewing ash. But I was a geography student, and that seemed exciting. The dangerous wonders of the natural world must continue to seem less than thrilling after Fukushima’s horrors. The local weather forecast website that I consulted before coming (“Should I take my winter coat?”) listed not only weather, but also information on volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes. Some nations definitely have geography working against them.
When I arrived at the immigration office, my listed profession (“Professor”) brought a smile of recognition from the uniformed official. “Professor?”, she said, “professor of what?”. “Geography!”, I proudly responded. She looked blank. “What is geography?”, she asked very sweetly. Definitely the most demure customs official I have ever met – and I have met and introduced students to many. I refrained from saying that, handily, I had the 100+ Powerpoint slides of my introductory course to geography in my laptop, should she be interested. Instead, totally jetlagged and caught short, I mumbled something along the lines of “studying the land”. She smiled politely. It didn’t sound convincing to me either. But she still let me in.
At the train station, the end of the line, two men took over the train to clean it. We all waited patiently on the platform as they hoovered and polished. When they had finished, in an infinitely-rehearsed trick, all the seats of the train turned around, and went from being laid out in sets of four to neat, forward-facing rows, all pointing in the right direction. What fun it would be to find that hidden button, and press it, when everyone was peacefully sitting down… A merry-go-round of mischief!
An efficient hour on the train later, and after a quick taxi ride, I was in my hotel room, wondering just what I could do to convince myself that it was 3pm, and not early morning. My “night” had been about three hours of fitful, airplane sleep. I hooked up my computer long enough to try to establish with Mr T and my mother that I was alive, and set off for a walk. Like any good Englishwoman, I needed to find a cup of tea – green, black, white, anything as long as it was hot – to convince myself that I was still standing, and that it was the afternoon. And that I was in Japan.
As in any good episode of Lost in Translation, this proved to be a complete disaster. I chose a nice, fresh looking café that looked rather like the inside of a Muji store, with tables and waiters. I pointed to something called “green tea latte”. This sounded ominously Starbuck-ish, and might, I hoped, be sweet enough to wake me up. It was undrinkable. It was, not to put too fine point on it, a horrid cappuccino with green tea powder mixed into it. Not, that really doesn’t go together, sorry, Japan. So one point for innovation and presentation, but zero, alas, for taste. It wasn’t helped by the fact that I really hate coffee. So I ate green-tea ice cream instead, which at least numbed the sore tooth and provided enough sugar to set out on a orientation challenge of wandering the streets.
It was lovely to start with a walk through the crowded streets of Downtown Kyoto, a world away from the stupendous wooden temples and shrines that I knew were out there, having gazed wonderingly at them last time I was here. Low houses, two stories high at most, in long and covered pedestrian streets. Every so often, an intersection with a few cars and many bicycles. Fearful of getting lost (ah, the skill-less geographer…), I decided to head out along one street until I had got my bearings, clutching the photocopied map supplied by the hotel. I discovered covered shopping arcades, all full of the most wonderful displays of totally mysterious products. Mr T would have loved it. I will have to take home a sack full of these mysterious but apparently mostly edible things for him to try.
As it was getting cold, and dark, I followed the queues to a little store selling warm snacks. This seemed to be a fried then steamed octopus/rice flour giant hot marshmallow on a stick. Just the thing for beating jetlag, I told myself. Interesting texture.
I must pace myself on the shopping because prices are practically Swiss, and I will have to lug anything I buy now all the way to Tokyo, and home again. And in Tokyo, after my two-day research meeting at the University of Kyoto – the Real Reason I am here after all – I will no doubt find other things to assemble. Not least at the Tokyo International Quilt Festival which I am so excited to be able to visit, and with a wonderful quilty friend from Switzerland to boot. But until then, I must get back to preparing tomorrow’s presentation to my colleagues. Not on volcanoes, not on earthquakes, and, thankfully, not on how to orient oneself in a strange city. But, mind you, I did get back safely to my hotel, so I cannot be all that bad.