Cultures Sauvages (Raw Cultures) is a radio show on Radio Eponyme, a local radio of Mulhouse. The show was created in 2017 and talks about culture and especially music and literature. Since October 2019, I’m doing a chronicle every month about my travels and I decided to draw something to illustrate my adventures!
The Mars 2020 show was about Japan and we recorded it in the lovely Japanese bookshop Le Temple d’Inari, in Mulhouse. You can listen to it -in French- right here:
ONE AUTUMN IN KYOTO
What I love about Japan is definitely the beauty of the seasons. Especially the astounding flamboyance of Spring (Haru 春) and Autumn (Aki 秋).
The cherry blossom season in Spring – also called hanami 花見 – really blew my mind. The same year, in November 2017, I discovered what Autumn looks like in Kyoto.
MOMIJIGARI & CHASING MAPLE TREES
Momijigari 紅葉狩りis the autumnal counterpart of hanami. It literally means “Autumn leaves hunting”. As a matter of fact, in Japan as in Canada, maple trees are colouring the streets with different shades of warm colours during Fall. This reddening of the leaves is called kôyô (紅葉) – as you can notice, the kanjis are the same ones found at the beginning of Momiji!
However, the Japanese maple leaves are way smaller and way thinner than the ones we know in Europe, and they have intricated serrated margins. There are obviously a dozen different species and maybe the same amount of different shades. As for the cherry blossom season, there’s a weather forecast dedicated to Momiji that’s foretelling the times where the colours will be the brightest: as for the Kyoto area, you should be around from mid-November to mid-December.
In Autumn as in Spring, Japanese are completely charmed by the leaves changing colour and are eager to witness that phenomenon in the gardens and temples. In Kyoto, the temples and the castle are open later at night and are offering light shows. That’s such a unique occasion to discover the temples and the foliage from an even more dreamlike perspective. Some temples, like the Eikan dô, are inflating their entrance prices during Fall. But I can assure you the visit is worth the price. The Eikan dô garden is the most beautiful garden I’ve ever seen in my life: I’ve never ever witnessed such a gradation of colours. This temple, founded in 863 makes the visitors stroll through little wooden paths winding through about fifty different pavilions, the marvellous garden and the Hojo pond. Despite the crowd of people that came for the momijigari, the visit was both bucolic and peaceful.
BACK TO FUSHIMI INARI TAISHA
I gave myself a month. A month to rediscover Kyoto, its temples, its cobbled streets. I wanted to explore more than the touristic areas, I wanted to feel at home in Kyoto. I, therefore, had the goal to visit at least a temple a day and let me tell you that there are many (MANY) temples in Kyoto!
Despite my eagerness to discover new temples, I couldn’t help myself returning to the Fushimi Inari shrine, one of the most famous shrines in Kyoto (maybe even in Japan). This shrine is well known for its pedestrian trails filled with torii (鳥居), those famous red gates in front of temples. The Japanese bookshop where I’m recording this chronicle is actually named after the Fushimi Inari shrine (it’s called Le Temple d’Inari). Here, there are so many torii that they’re forming like a tunnel on the pathway to the top of the mountain.
I decided to get back to the Fushimi Inari Shrine in the evening and the play of light and shadow between the torii thanks to the little lampposts gives to the place a mystical, mysterious, eerie atmosphere. I’m quite alone in the middle of the forest after all. Surrounded with shrines and fox shaped deities’ statues, my footsteps resonating on the cobbles in the darkness… It’s said that the torii are marking the frontier between the profane world and the spiritual world. That night, it felt like I entered another world… I felt a bit like Chihiro, strolling in this spiritual world filled with unknown creatures and spirits.
THE GOJO NEIGHBOURHOOD
While in Kyoto, I was based at the Gojo Paradiso, a guesthouse I was working for in exchange for accommodation. Who would have guessed that one day I’d be the laundry lady? Let me introduce to my hidden skill number 73. I discovered there the charming Gojo neighbourhood and its traditional houses: the machiya. Machiya are wooden houses which used to be very popular in Kyoto before the Second World War. They used to belong to craftsmen and merchants. Nowadays, most of them were turned into restaurants, coffee shops, hotels and guesthouses. It’s actually one of the best ways to preserve those old houses considering they’re made out of wood: it can rot pretty quick and is obviously highly flammable. I’m lucky to work in those typical houses, where there are tatamis on the ground and little inner courtyards.
Strolling in the Gojo neighbourhood with my laundry bags was filling up my heart with joy – well, at least when it wasn’t raining. The streets narrow and the neighbourhood is located between the Kamo River and the Takase Canal. The light was crazy there in the mornings with the maple trees when I was going out to check out some temples before my work duties.
ICHI, NI, SENTÔ
Autumn in Kyoto can be quite cold. It was sometimes below 0°C at night and, as in Taiwan the temperatures were still pretty okay at this time of the year, I didn’t even bring a jacket with me…! I finally had to buy a green hoodie, a winter jacket, a pair of gloves and borrowed some clothes here and there to survive.
This is why my favourite habit in Kyoto was to go bath in the sentô (銭湯), the public baths! There were two sentô in my street, both opened until 2 a.m every day. It was quite cheap and I could bath in four or five different baths: one cold bath, some hot baths, perfumed, with colours, and even an electric bath! It was always busy with people, even at night. I loved it even better when I was sitting in the sauna with some old ladies listening to Japanese music from the fifties. I found it to be extraordinary. Going to the sentô is part of the Japanese daily life, it’s the perfect place to take care of yourself, to relax and most of all to gossip about life in the neighbourhood. Even though I couldn’t understand most of the conversations, I still had the feeling of belonging to the Gojo neighbourhood when I went bathing twice or three times a week at the sentô!
As a matter of fact, the first time I went there, I was very touched because the lady owner offered me an origami crane as a thank you. Since I’ve been offering origami cranes to many people while travelling for the past years, it had been quite a long time since anyone offered one to me! Life is quite funny sometimes.
In the end, I found Japan even more magical in Autumn. Was it because my heart skipped a few beats again because of a boy? Was it because of the cold? I snuggled into his woollen scarf the same way you’d curl up into the blankets on the first frosts of the year.
Was it the light dizziness I had every time I’d go out of the sentô and walk back home in the freezing night? Or was it because I’d took my time, every morning, to wake up on the first lights to stroll into magnificent gardens bursting with warm colours? Whatever it was, what I know for sure now, is that my vision of paradise looks a lot like a never-ending Autumn in the streets of Kyoto…