Despite having spent two weeks here, I barely feel I've scratched the surface in finding out what Japan is all about. If I'd written this a few days ago like I'd intended I wouldn't have been able to say if I'd enjoyed my time here overall or not. The past fortnight has been a series of highs and lows, each as unpredeciatable as the next. That said I'm leaving on a high which makes a huge difference. First and foremost I must stress that I'm not reflecting negatively on the country itself more on how it suited me and more specifically my task in hand.
On arriving in Kyoto I experienced the first real culture shock I've ever had, and in the last place I'd ever expected. Perhaps it would've happened a few days earlier had I not been with my Dad and therefore probably significantly less observant and sensitive. In many ways Japan outwardly seems much more western than many of the other countries I've visited but that only makes the cultural differences even harder to fathom when they emerge. There are so many rules and manners its impossible not to worry if I'm doing something wrong or offending someone. More often than not I've been doing both but everyone is too polite to say anything which only makes life more difficult. Very little English is spoken and even miming and sign language don't get you very far. The Japanese are incredibly patient, well-mannered and particular and I'm afraid I am none of these which may have been why I just couldn't quite get it.
I soon discovered that painting is banned in many places although even after two weeks I haven't managed to find out why. (One Japanese man thought perhaps they were worried about mess and suggested I sketch but after a brief pause said that wouldn't work either as the dust from rubbing out would be just as bad). Having set up my easel at a couple of temples and shrines I would be suddenly confronted with a hostile pair of crossed arms. I took to asking before setting up, or rather bowing furiously and showing photos of my painting set up and batting my eyelashes. It worked a couple of times but then the pressure was so much that my paintings ended up being embarrassingly bad.
I managed a couple of street scenes and although I got some odd looks a few people were really lovely and interested. I was photographed by some people from the Kyoto Local Press and later received an email entirely in Japanese which I think may have had something to do with them. I'm afraid it became so frustrating walking or cycling miles to a good spot and then being sent away that after a while I simply gave up trying. Without the occupation of painting itself and the usual constant and admittedly sometimes annoying stream of conversation that accompanies it I began to feel rather lonely. Japan is not an easy country as an outsider, particularly a woman travelling solo. I gradually adapted to life as a regular tourist and even found somewhere where I could throw a pot and have it shipped home, I enjoyed this so much I've already checked where I can do it in London!
By chance I'd overheard a girl at a party back in England saying she was moving to Kyoto for two months. India Windsor-Clive and I ended up spending almost four whole days together cycling to temples, roaming around flea markets and sampling endless restaurants. She's out here writing a book and has taken to life in Japan most impressively although admits that it has not been easy. It was a relief for both of us to have someone to giggle out all our faux pas with.
One evening we were in a bar and got chatting to Alex who runs the Four Seasons in Kyoto. India had met him once or twice before and he invited us along to his hotel to see a Maiko San dancing. There are only sixty Maiko San left in the whole of Japan so we were hugely honoured not just to be able to see her but even meet her over a glass of Champage after her performance. India had a meeting scheduled at the Four Seasons the next day so we checked in with her contact, Nicole since we were there. She very generously insisted on buying us both dinner at the restaurant, and five courses later we finally staggered out!
The winter ran on late this year pushing the cherry blossom back until the week after my stay. Although I was lucky enough to see buds in Kyoto and the first bloom in Tokyo, Nikko, my next stop was still half covered in snow. The shrines there were magnificent but given the freezing cold weather I didn't even attempt to paint. I think this was in part due to lagging enthusiasm as terrible weather has never deterred me before. I spent a large amout of my time there wallowing in the Onsen and preening myself afterwards. The Japanese women are enviably elegant and tiny. Unfortunately it's been some time since I properly looked in the mirror and I've long since shed any remotely acceptable clothes in favour of practical waterproof trousers and a slightly paint splattered anorak.
Once back in Tokyo I decided to spruce myself up and hit the shops, envisaging a new me strolling around the city in silk culottes and an immaculate trench coat. It was pretty depressing to discover I could only fit into size large here. I'm not sure if I can entirely blame the Japanese for being so slim, I might be in part to blame for the effects of my tour gastronomique of the country. And all the other countries for at matter. So instead of shopping I settled for a hair cut instead which was surprisingly good. Then ignoring my ever expanding waistline I spent the last couple of days exploring all that Japan has to offer in the way of food.
So to put matters straight I really am glad I came but I am leaving dissatisfied. On one hand it's been fascinating, and so wildly different not only from what I'd imagined but also anywhere I've been before. On the other hand I came here to paint and I haven't managed that much, with only nine small paintings from two week trip. And finally I enjoyed feeling tall in Vietnam but I didn't enjoy feeling fat in Japan! Next stop: Peru!
While I have your attention, some of you may remember I had the good fortune to meet and spend some time with Gary Clark in Ella, Sri Lanka. He took the photo of me painting Nine Arch Bridge on a very dodgy looking platform and then sweetly bought the painting afterwards. He also very touchingly managed to track down my parents to check I was alright after he noticed I hadn't posted on my blog for sometime and had been uncharacteristicly late at replying to emails. Amazingly he is about to cycle 100 miles over the Surrey hills in 8 hours despite being in his sixties! He's raising money for Tommy's a charity that not only helps save babies lives but also supports families who have suffered stillbirth or miscarriage. Please if you have a moment, take a look at his fundraising page: http://justgiving.com/fundraising/Gary-Clark10