It sounded like a call to prayer, an incomprehensible voice from a loudspeaker somewhere nearby. I looked around but I was disoriented, confused. I was carrying my backpack, on the road again, but where was I? I was no longer in Malaysia; this was Japan. This isn’t a Muslim country; there are no mosques here. So why was I hearing a call to prayer? I felt out of place, as if my mind wasn’t synchronised with my body, my head not yet in tune with my location. This was also partly because I’d been travelling for weeks in hot countries in South East Asia, wearing shorts and t-shirts, but here in Japan in January it was cold. And snow was falling lightly in the dark street. I had just arrived and hadn’t yet adjusted, physically nor mentally. In a similar way to jet lag, I was still in a different zone culturally; I was ‘out of sync’ with this new reality around me. Like some virtual reality headset but in reverse, because what I could see was the reality, it was my head that was playing an alternative program.
Whether real or imaginary, I saw a small van ahead of me in the narrow street, moving along at a walking pace. The loudspeaker voice was coming from there, wailing melodically, but in Japanese not Arabic. Furthermore it wasn’t a call to prayer but the invitation to come out into the cold street to buy something from the back of the seller’s van. When he stopped for a customer I caught up to have a look. From a mobile oven he was selling sweet potatoes. I bought some and carried the hand-warming brown paper bag for a few more streets until I arrived at the guest house that was to be my temporary base in Kyoto.
Gojo guesthouse was recommended because of its traditional wooden architecture, a Japanese version of an English “ye olde inn”, with low twisted wooden beams and small-paned windows. It looked warm and welcoming and I was greeted with with a friendly smile from the Japanese woman at reception who called herself Shirley and spoke English with a French accent.
After checking in I was shown to the room where I would make my bed on the floor. There were instructions on a laminated card: “How to spread a Japanese style bed”. A diagram showed the correct order: Mattress 1; Mattress 2; Sheet 1; Pillow Case; Sheet 2; Quilt. On the diagram, between the pillow case and sheet 2 was a sketch of a sleeping body. Supervised by Shirley, I started to make up my own bed following the simple and clear instructions, which I followed to the letter. I felt as if I was on one of those TV shows where hapless contestants try to follow a technique just demonstrated by a skillful master. I asked Shirley how well I had done. Seven out of ten perhaps? “Four”, she replied with a grin. Clearly there’s a knack to making up a bed quickly and neatly, which I hadn’t yet mastered. Nevertheless, my untidy bed was warm and comfortable.
Snow was falling heavily outside, illuminated in the dark by the street lamps on the road outside. I was glad to be inside, in the warmth. I still hadn’t adjusted to the cold weather after travelling in the tropics and I was in a grumpy mood. I muttered that this was the kind of cold weather I was trying to avoid! If I wanted snow in January I could have stayed in Europe, I complained privately.
The following day I planned to visit some of Kyoto’s famous temples. The staff at the guest house told me how lucky I was to visit the temples during snowfall because this only happened a couple of times each year. At this point I looked at things differently and decided to be grateful, not grumbling, about the snow. This was an example of a ‘paradigm shift’ when all of a sudden something can be seen totally differently. Now, I saw that I had stumbled across a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity. Japan’s celebrated cherry blossoms are a certain sight every year and visitors can confidently slot them into a schedule, but snow is unpredictable and never guaranteed. Similar paradigm shifts can happen when we learn something new about a person and as a result know them in a new light. In business it can happen too, when a new opportunity arises from something that seemed like a failure. It’s all about re-framing what’s in front of us and seeing things from a different angle.
In the morning I set off walking in the snow towards my chosen temple and had enough time to take a detour into a graveyard. Each gravestone was snow-topped with a thick white icing and I walked between them, along narrow paths, up and down steps, all around the cemetery. From here I could see temples, also snow-capped, coloured bright orange which contrasted beautifully with the clear blue sky. I was alone here and spent some time composing photos of the temples through bleak bare trees, with grey gravestones in the foreground. Although I don’t normally take many photos, I do try to take one good image from each country that is worthy of displaying back at home. This was clearly the time and place to find it.
That special photo of Kiyomizu Temple is on a wall in my house. It reminds me that the exotic is found in the cold as well as the heat. It reminds me that arriving in Kyoto in the snow was a stroke of good luck. Most importantly though, it reminds me that I can learn to see things completely differently – if I choose to do so.
Copyright © David Parrish 2018.
Published 09 September 2018.
“Take every chance you get in life, because some things only happen once.”
“At its best, travel should challenge our preconceptions and most cherished views, cause us to rethink our assumptions, shake us a bit, make us broader minded and more understanding.”
“Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to.”
“Japan is the most intoxicating place for me. In Kyoto, there’s an inn called the Tawaraya which is quite extraordinary. The Japanese culture fascinates me: the food, the dress, the manners and the traditions. It’s the travel experience that has moved me the most.”
Read more travel quotes.