All it took was three days in Kyoto.
A short holiday in the city was enough to convince writer Janice Tay to give up a settled life in Singapore and move to the heart of old Japan. A decade later, she is still here. From 2007 to 2013, she contributed a fortnightly column on Japanese culture and history to The Straits Times, Singapore’s main English-language daily and one of the oldest newspapers in Asia. Kyoto Unhurried, a collection of essays based on that column, features lesser-known places, people and events in an atmospheric introduction to one of the world’s most romantic cities.
“I’ve been waiting for years, I feel, for a book that embodies all the sensitivity and gracefulness – and playfulness – I associate with my adopted home, Kyoto. This is a work that not only opens the door to one of the world’s great cities, but shows you the very spirit that makes Kyoto so special.”
– Pico Iyer
Below is an excerpt from Kyoto Unhurried:
I’ve seen them from below, from cars and from a picnic blanket so, this year, I decide to find out how sakura look from water.
River boats ply the Hozugawa from Kameoka city to Arashiyama, an area of temples and bamboo on the western edges of Kyoto. In spring, cherry blossoms dot the mountains lining the route – but only for a few days because sakura moves fast.
The boat, on the other hand, does not. Propelled by pole and oar, it inches away from the pier; even walking would be faster. The boat ride takes about one and a half hours – the next 100 minutes look like they’re going to be long.
We pass a carriage horse plodding along the bank. The passengers wave down at us; we wave back. The carriage, another form of river entertainment, moves as leisurely as we do. We’ve slipped into an older age, a slower one, a time set to the metronome of a creaking oar.
Even the whitewater sections feel laidback. But the experience is considerably enlivened by the Japanese in the boat; they scream through the not very rapid rapids as if we’re going over the Niagara Falls in a barrel.
The river doesn’t have a long history of transporting excitable tourists. The sightseeing tours began only in the late 19th century but for hundreds of years, timber – lashed together into rafts – as well as grain and charcoal were floated down the Hozugawa to Kyoto. The practice came to an end only about 70 years ago when railways and roads took over.
These days, the river trade is tourism. The boatmen are busiest in spring and autumn, when sakura blooms and the maple leaves are bright. But on some days in winter, snow dusts the mountains and in summer, there are azaleas.
Not long after the ride begins, the woman beside me points to a thin rope stretched above the river. ‘What’s that?’ she asks one of the three boatmen.
‘Tin can telephone line,’ he says with a straight face.
It’s the rope for the koinobori. In early summer, carp-shaped streamers are suspended from the line. They flutter alive when the wind flows down the ravine, an invisible river above the water.
The carp are seen only in summer but the boatmen keep up their comic patter all year round. They steer not just the boat but also the conversation. Knowing when to push the boat away from a boulder seems as important as timing a joke.
The boatman rowing in front points out the difficulty of navigating a shallow river. ‘If the bottom of the boat hits a rock, water may start gushing in. At times like this – ’ He pauses. ‘Just keep quiet and put your foot over the hole.’
He tells us not to worry if we fall into the river and swallow a couple of mouthfuls. ‘It’s okay to drink the water; it’s good for constipation.’
An elderly passenger asks if he knows any boatman songs. He makes a face. ‘Row and sing? I’d die.’
In the busy periods of spring and autumn, he says, each boatman has to do three to four trips daily. ‘Towards the end of the day, I’m so tired I can’t talk. So if you come in sakura or maple leaf season, come in the morning.’
The river was even more demanding in the past. Boats, unable to float upstream, had to be dragged back to the starting point after the cargo was unloaded. The crews hiked along narrow trails by the river, pulling the ropes tied to the boats. Over hundreds of years, the ropes cut grooves into the riverside rocks that can still be seen today.
These days, the boats are stacked onto a lorry and driven back to Kameoka. The boatmen return by train.
But we’ve not reached the end yet. We’re still in the middle of the river in our little wooden boat and the man working the oar still finds the time to point out turtles, diving cormorants and monkeys along the shore. I spot a brown dipper, a bird that walks underwater to search for food on the stream bed. I count the seconds until it bobs back up to the surface.
The boatman points out the sakura as well but he doesn’t need to. You can’t miss it, the white puffs in the green and brown – less like trees in flower than clouds that drifted too close to the mountains and snagged there.
‘The Torokko train’s coming,’ says the boatman. An old-fashioned locomotive pulls into view. Another popular tourist attraction in the area, the train runs alongside the river for part of its route. Now that it’s sakura season, the carriages are packed. The train passengers wave at us. We’re too far away to see their faces but we wave back.
And we arrive too soon at Arashiyama. Rental boats fill the river here but our boatmen navigate through the amateur rowers as if they’re just a few more rocks along the way.
One of the boatmen announces the end of the ride; a passenger groans.
The boat hasn’t just delivered us to Arashiyama. It took us to a slower age – limited to the here and therefore focused on the now – when people had the time to wave to strangers and watch mountains stretching out, wider than any widescreen television. With all that to do, time in a slow boat passes quickly, faster even than the clouds of cherry blossoms that come in spring and leave in days.
Kyoto Unhurried can be ordered through amazon.com here.