Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The top five things I love about living in Kyoto

My time in Kyoto is drawing to a close. The three months here have passed in a blur of late nights in the lab at Kyoto University, and runs along the Kamogawa river and through the mountains surrounding Kyoto. It hasn’t all been fun and games, but I have challenged myself, and find myself stronger from it.

This Saturday, Audun and I are headed to the Philippines for 10 days before I move back to Oslo, just in time for the darkest, dreariest month of the year. Ironically, I’m leaving just as Kyoto is starting to feel like home.

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Kyoto is so beautiful in November, which is when the leaves turn. Here from Kyoto Imperial Palace park.

Here are five things I will miss about living in Kyoto:

1. Walking through the city on the busy main streets, and then turning on to a single lane side street where the old Japan seems to materialize. The noise of cars seems to disappear and all of the houses have wooden sliding doors and pattern roof tiles. Suddenly you stumble upon a shrine or temple; some could rival cathedrals while others could fit in your bathroom. The famous shrines and temples of Kyoto are spectacular, but the small, unknown ones are what create the special feel that defines Kyoto for me.

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A statue on a small side street in Kyoto.

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Kiyomizudera temple matches the fall foliage.

2. Convenience. Although the vending machines on every corner still seem a little excessive to me, it’s true that everything here is set up with convenience in mind. Unlike Norway, where most shops are closed on Sundays, most places are open seven days a week here, and much later than in Norway. There are endless little cafés and cheap yet excellent eateries to visit here. 

2. The transportation system. The sheer number of trains and buses running, even in a small city like Kyoto, is staggering. Not to mention the Shinkansen! The Tokaido line between Osaka and Tokyo stops at Kyoto something like every ten minutes. The trains are always on time, meticulously clean, really fast, and you can buy tickets minutes before getting on the train. Japan has managed to make a system where it is more convenient to take the train to Tokyo than fly - if only they could do that for the commute between Oslo and Trondheim! The only downside is that the trains aren’t particularly cheap, and that subway and bus lines within one city can be run by several companies, which necessitates several tickets if you are changing lines.

3. Endlessly kind people. The Japanese are quiet and orderly, and this is the place in the world I have felt safest living. If I look the slightest bit lost, someone will ask me if I need help, even if they don’t speak English!

5. The food. I definitely miss certain Western foods (whole wheat bread and cheese come to mind), but Japanese food is incredibly. A common misconception is that everyone eats sushi all the time here. There are so many different types of food in Japan that I’ve only had sushi three times in as many months! Japanese food tends to be mild and balanced (or ‘umami’). Dishes are rarely very salty or very sweet, most often somewhere in between. This has resulted in some unpleasant surprises, like when I bought tortilla chips and they tasted sweet. Some of my favorite foods are ramen, anything matcha (green tea) flavored and fresh Kyoto tofu with simple toppings.

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Delicious shoyu raman at the Yokohama Ramen Museum

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Matcha and vanilla swirl soft serve.

I can’t write about Japanese food without mentioning the wonderful rice here. At upscale restaurants, it’s common to have a separate rice course, which comes just before dessert. The course consists of plain, fresh white rice, cooked to perfection, served with a few pickled vegetables, some miso paste to add a little flavor and a simple miso soup. It sounds boring to the Western palate, where we are used to being bombarded with flavor, but it’s actually pretty amazing.

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The rice course at kaiseki restaurant Gion Nanba.

The one thing I won’t miss is being foreign all of the time. My looks and even how I dress make me stick out like a sore thumb here; it will be nice to go back to a place where I just blend in. I’m also looking forward to communicating with more than hand gestures and simple words. I have started to learn the basics of Japanese, but it’s so different from the languages I speak (English, Norwegian and French) that it would take me years, not months to get a working proficiency. 

For now I’m making a list of all the places in Kyoto I want to say goodbye to and trying to ignore all of the things I didn’t have time to see or do. I guess I’ll just have to come back someday!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Monday, November 14, 2016

A taste of China

The Keyuan gardens in Dongguan, China are almost entirely preserved in their original state from the mid-19th century. As I walked around the gardens in my last afternoon in China, I could imagine seeing a beautiful, sequestered noblewoman admiring the carp alongside of me, or a man in flowing robes furrowing his brow over his calligraphy in the courtyard. On the far side of the picturesque lake however, this illusion of history was marred by grey, high-rise apartments.

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The Keyan Gardens in Donguan. 

This was the moment that completely epitomized my week in China. China is like a teen with growing pains; it is a country that has grown so fast that new has split the seams of the old.

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Scooters and neon lights in Shanghai.

Two weeks ago, I was went to China for six days on business. It was my first time in China, and unlikely to be my last. My colleagues and I spent two days in Shanghai, half a day in Xiamen, and two days in Dongguan, a city between Guangzhou and Hong Kong. As is often the case on business trips, I didn’t have time to take in many sights. We spent one afternoon in a beautiful old town of Suzhou outside of Shanghai, and toured Dongguan on the last day. 

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A charming old town of Suzhou. There was a clear divide in the ‘tourist area’ that was well-kept and prospering in this town, and the ‘locals’ area where more stuff was falling apart, there was trash on the streets, etc. Just one of the many incongruities of China.

One thing we did do was eat a lot. The Chinese take their food seriously. Tables are most often round, with a glass plate mounted in the center. A wide variety of dishes are ordered at every meal and placed on the glass plate, which can be spun so that everyone at the table can take pieces of the dish of their choosing. Whereas in the West we would often either eat fish or meat, in China there’s a hodgepodge of everything at every meal. 

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A typical lunch spread in China.

The most surprising thing was how little rice and noodles I actually ate. We mostly ate fish, meat and vegetables. It may be that these dishes are considered better or fancier, and that we were being treated as honoured guests. Still, I think I only rice once on the entire trip, in a fried rice dish! 

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A waiter desperately tries to find more space for food on our full dinner table. 

And all parts of the animal are consumed in China. I’m a ‘try everything once’ kind of gal, and the short list of things I tried on this trip includes snails (much smaller than the ones they serve in France), two types of stomach (sheep and cow), black pickled eggs, raw crab claws, stinky tofu (tastes similar to brie, but spongier texture) and spicy crayfish. 

Then there was the tea. I’m usually a big coffee drinker, but you don’t go to China without drinking tea. At the companies where we had meetings, there was often a special tea set with an integrated water boiler. The one pictured below was particularly clever, as the was a sensor that detected when the hot water was empty. The faucet would swivel around and automatically refill the water boiler. Traditionally, these tea sets have a frog that you ‘feed’ by pouring tea on it. Over time, the frog, which is made out of a special type of ceramic, changes color or ‘grows’. The tea is served in minuscule cups that are refilled ad nauseam.

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A typical Chinese tea set, complete with a frog to feed.

Although the old ways of China remain in their tea cultures, in other aspects it is clear they are striving hard to modernize. Many of the restaurants had a glitzy, look-a-me feel that is very different from the Scandinavian (and for that matter Japanese) design that I am used to. Chandeliers, marble and lavish furniture all gave the impression that the Chinese are trying to put their new-found wealth on display. Sometimes this went to almost ridiculous lengths, as was the case with this lunch table for 12 that our group of 5 was given...

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Fancy enough lunch room much.

…Or our hotel in Dongguan, a 39-story monolith where you could order green tea pillows, chandeliers in all of the elevators, and a man who pressed the elevator button for me after breakfast. I swear the hotel room was larger than my apartment here in Kyoto.

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Our hotel in Dongguan. Yes, the huge one.

I ran a little while I was in China, although not much since I’m feeling a little burned out these days. My last morning in Dongguan I made it to Qifeng park. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and truth be told I was feeling a little nervous before the run. Dongguan has not always been a safe city, although the recent prosperity that comes from factories mass-producing goods have certainly remedied that to a certain degree. However, I could tell that Qifeng park was a popular jogging spot from the Strava Heatmap, and decided to go for it.

There were literally hundreds of people walking, jogging and running the paved path that encircles Qifeng park. I felt very safe due to the shear number of people who were out. I only saw a handful of other foreigners; this was mostly locals, out enjoying the morning. It was a smoggy morning, and the sun rose in a spectacular show of deep, polluted orange. I definitely felt like the air I was breathing was heavier than usual. 

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Smoggy light in Qifeng park.

I should also mention the restricted internet access in China. As many people are aware, websites such as Facebook, Instagram, Blogspot, Twitter, the New York Times and Google are all blocked in China. I forgot about this and neglected to download local Google Maps for the areas I was travelling to. I felt kind of lost for most of the trip, as I usually use Google Maps to orient myself. Much to my surprise, many blocked websites were locally available on the hotel in Dongguan. Apparently a large concentration of tourists merits holes in China’s Great Firewall!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Thursday, November 10, 2016

When it's time for a break

Nearly two weeks ago, I set out for a 25K long run, seeking to link up Mt Hiei with Daimonjiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto. I spent a half an hour on the bus to Ohara, then found the trail headed up to Mt Hiei. It was a beautiful fall day, and I was testing out my new hydration pack. In theory, the stars were lined up for a wonderful afternoon out. But something inside of me just wasn’t along for the ride. 

Just walk. I told myself. It’s uphill anyway. Walk until you feel the motivation to run. 

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So I walked. And walked. And by the time I reached the top of Mt. Hiei two hours later I knew that today was not the day to push myself to go the distance. I took the cable car down the mountain (yes, seriously), and then the train home. I got a milkshake and french fries and watched Netflix for the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes you have to do that.

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Beautiful foliage on Mt Hiei.

Every since I won Hanase Trail Run, I have felt mentally exhausted. It has been a long, intense year of running. I started to focus my training in January and I have trained and raced well this year, with no injuries to speak of. Physically I am fine, truth be told I am in great shape. But I need to back off, to find to space to wake up excited about running rather than doing it because I feel like I have to, every day.

I am signed up for one more race, a 35K trail race near Nara which takes place tomorrow. For a while, I kept telling myself I would just keep up the intensity until that last race, and then I would back off and take some time off from running. It turns out I don’t get to decide how long I keep the intensity up for. My unconscious self is already on vacation. So I’m not going to do the race. It’s time for a break. I’m still running a little, but only when I really want to.

I struggle, as a type A person, with letting myself relax. I still feel guilty when I get up in the morning and don’t work out. But maybe that’s why it’s important not to, at least for a little while.

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In other news, my running routes along the river now looks like this! It’s finally fall in Japan.

One thing is for sure: I’ll be back.

- The Wild Bazilchuk