The Old Capital

The gate of Yasaka Shrine is nice, but it was one of the least impressive things I saw in Kyoto

Way back when I signed my contract with Blight, my only requirement was that I be placed somewhere with easy access to both Kyoto and Tokyo—by which criterion Shizuoka, equidistant from both, had been essentially perfect.


By the time I moved to The Village, while I’d made a reasonable number of trips to Tokyo, I still hadn’t gone down to the old capital of Japan. I wanted to coordinate any Kyoto trip with my friend Fozzie, who’d been living there since before I arrived, but whenever I had time off he went somewhere else, so it had never worked out.


Sometime toward the end of January, Fozzie told me he was going to be directing and performing in a collection of plays in Kyoto and Kobe, and the show’s third and final weekend was the 8th and 9th of February. I wanted to head down, but the longest stay I could work out would mean arriving around 10:00 on Friday night, spending all day involved with the show on Saturday, and then leaving by 4:00 on Sunday afternoon. It seemed like a waste of a trip to a city so replete with history that it was specifically spared from destruction during the Second World War.


However, Tuesday the 11th was a holiday—what might be called “Japan Day,” celebrating the first brief unification of the country about a millennium ago—and my Monday school was running two lessons ahead of the other schools. I figured I could at least ask.


In the end, I got the obligatory warning that my paid holidays were to be used only for illness or emergency, and I got to spend four days in Kyoto, Kobe and Osaka.


I don’t think I could possibly have made better use of those four days.

The Play

Before I left on Friday, I had another lesson with my super-genki (“genki” = energetic) big grade five class. I played with them afterwards as usual, most notably with Rambina, who considers kicking, punching, pinching, foot-stomping and insults all to be a normal part of the “play” process when I’m involved. Fortunately, I manage to evade 49 out of 50 of her blows. It’s quite necessary. They really hurt.


“Rambina,” I finally asked her, “Do you have a big brother?”


“No, just me,” she replied.


“Why? Because you killed him?”


Then she yelled and beat me up some more.


It was strange getting on the bus to Shuzenji that afternoon: what had once been a bi-weekly excursion had become so unfamiliar that I wasn’t even sure how long it took any more. I hadn’t taken that bus since Socks got his car in the summer.


As I pulled into Shuzenji station, something in my mind automatically looked forward to dropping in on Bishop before I continued on. But then I realized that he wasn’t there any more. He’d been gone for six months. That made me a little sad.


Following two and a half hours standing in a packed Shinkansen car, I met Fozzie outside the esoteric slab of steel-lined concrete that passes for Kyoto Station. He and I looked disturbingly similar: not only did he sport a goatee to match my beard, but he’d also recently cut his hair, wore a ski jacket, and carried an oversized MEC bag. We looked like the first wave of the Canadian Clone Army.


The first item on Saturday morning was collecting Mo from the apartment two floors up. She and Fozzie were appearing in David Ives’ “Sure Thing,” a short play that Fozzie had originally performed in high school. The show had been in Kyoto for the two preceding weekends, but the final two performances were in a small theatre concealed somewhere among the rather unspectacular “foreigners’ buildings” that attract throngs of tourists to Kobe.


There I encountered the universal truth that, if a total stranger walks into a theatre four hours before a play and asks, “Does anyone need some help?” there will invariably follow a resounding “Yes!”


The moving force behind the show was Peter Golightly (real name), who’s been in Japan about fifteen years and mentioned something about choreographing ice-skating shows in Izu during the Bubble Years. He asked me to figure out a way to drop an overhead lamp into position, and was disproportionately excited by my rope-slung-over-a-beam solution. I then went out to buy people food, cigarettes, and an umbrella during the break (it was raining), and gave directions to confused theatregoers just about every time I stepped out of the building (the maps were very hard to read). By the end of the night, everyone seemed quite disappointed that I wasn’t coming back the next day.


The show was divided into two parts called “Fantasy” and “Reality,” each about two and a half hours long and separated by 90-minute break. It was possible to buy tickets for one or both. Fozzie had retooled a few sections of “Sure Thing” so that they were done in Japanese, which worked quite well with the play’s try-fail-reset-and-try-again construction.


In the last piece of the Reality section, “The Sound of a Voice,” a swordsman gradually fell in love with the beautiful witch he’d ventured into the woods to kill, and the Japanese girl playing the witch was spectacular. She’d studied drama in Australia for a few years, but she still had a peculiar not-quite-Japanese accent that made her character all the more mysterious and enticing.


The final piece in the Fantasy section was “The Fisherman’s Soul,” which Peter had adapted from an Oscar Wilde story, and was set entirely to music written by the guy who was at the door selling tickets. The composer sat at the front and played violin while Schlagger, a gorgeous 5’10” Japanese girl, sat on the opposite side and played some rather exotic percussion. Supernatural elements were represented by puppetry and dance, while the guy who played the narrator, as well as various small characters and the fisherman’s soul itself, had a great, eerie and compelling voice that carried the mood from scene to scene as the simple six-panel set shifted from one location to another. Peter is considering taking it to New York. I could see it happen.


Fozzie didn’t want to have to rush back to Kyoto, go to sleep, wake up, and spend an hour coming right back the next day, so he’d planned to spend the night in the theatre. I’d meant to go back to Fozzie’s place so I could get an early start on sightseeing the next morning, but as the play wound down and people started getting ready to go to a pub, I considered how well I’d gotten on with everybody and decided Kyoto could wait a few hours.


Fozzie was tired and headed back early, but I happily continued on from the pub to the ensuing club. I got to dance to music I actually liked for the first time since I’d gone to Fuji Rock with Fozzie in the summer, and I spearheaded the thuggish call for Karaoke when we all poured onto the street and randomly started singing Edelweiss aorund 3:00 a.m.


It was about 4:00 by the time the others all piled into Peter’s van and headed off to crash at someone-or-other’s house, while I used my cell phone display like a flashlight to stumble blindly to the back of the pitch dark theatre. I found Fozzie asleep in the little heater-equipped room on the second floor. Much to my surprise, I also found the gorgeous percussionist, Schlagger.


Fozzie has a girlfriend and is a good, faithful gaijin. But I was starting to think maybe I should have come back earlier, too.


The three of us sluggishly rose around 10:30, and I readily aided Schlagger with some stretches when she mentioned her problems with chronic back pain. We were just leaving for breakfast when everyone else staggered back in—including a random member of the audience, who looked like absolute hell.


I was envious that they’d gone out for Yawmcha (Chinese buffet breakfast) in Chinatown without me. Fozzie says it’s not much compared to the one in Toronto, but Chinatown is the other thing Kobe is famous for beyond the devastating earthquake of 1995.


As we made a beeline for the nearest convenience store, it somehow came out that Schlagger grew herbs in her garden.


“Oh!” I exclaimed. “You have a garden?”


“Yeah,” she said. “I have a house in Osaka.”


“You have your own house? Wow.”


“Yeah, well, it’s old.”


“Yeah, but still…”


“And you know, it’s lonely living alone.”




“So, do you have a girlfriend?”


I am moving to Osaka. I am moving to Osaka tomorrow. I am…


Fozzie noted that he always seemed to hang out with particularly attractive women when we got together, and recommended I visit more often.


I was heading back to Kyoto on my own, however. On the way, I stepped off the train a few times to check that it really did say “express” and not “slowest train on the planet” on the outside of my car; we kept stopping at every single station while trains labelled “limited express” shot past us every twenty minutes or so. Fozzie later explained that the normal trains are called “express” while the “limited express” stops at a “limited” number of stations and is thus much, much faster.


Stupid backward nomenclature. Stupid, slow train. Stupid me.


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