We are living in Hieidaira, a small neighbourhood located halfway up a mountain in the suburbs of Kyoto.
There is only one bus which serves the suburb, and it lumbers up the narrow, switchback road once every hour. We are somewhat out of the way, where the airbnb prices are more affordable, and so our big yellow house has plenty of room to spread out. We have one Japanese-style room with tatami mats and papered, sliding doors, but most rooms are Western-style, with an office, a kitchen, a small couch and a dining room table. This is a perfect combination. I seek out tatami because it feels wonderfully Japanese, it captures my imagination and makes me ache with happy nostalgia– but very quickly my weak leg and back muscles make that ache all too literal, and I need to sink into a chair
It gets dark here so early – around 5pm – and as the sun sets, the choral buzz of crickets and cicadas lends substance to the evening. In the late night, an unknown animal (possibly a bird) periodically emits a howl that sounds just like a woman’s terrified scream. The boys keep studious records of the previously unknown insects that populate the neighbourhood: praying mantises, spiders, snails, river crabs, and leafy-looking grasshoppers.
Some of our days have been hot and so sunny that I adopted the Japanese custom of carrying an umbrella for shade. Lately, it’s been overcast and cool, with rain falling rhythmically outside our windows. It’s autumn in Japan, and we have used both the air conditioner and the heater in the space of a single week.
We have spent many of our days in Kyoto, exploring famous landmarks and bustling market streets, taking trains all over the city, going to karaoke rooms and owl cafés. We have also spent many days at home. With an entire month here, there is no rush to see the sights. We spend our home-days doing work and school, cooking and eating meals, watching TV shows on our laptop. If we feel a bit stir-crazy towards the afternoon, we take walks through the quiet Hieidaira streets, past houses and dog-walkers, past the ubiquitous vending machines and the local convenience store. There is a Korean restaurant nearby. There is another eatery with hanging paper lanterns, where we were the only customers, and an ancient lady served us a delicious cold-noodle dish which we ordered by mistake using google translate (the English menus get rarer as you leave the well-trodden tourist paths).
Hieidaira is halfway between Kyoto and Otsu, and it seems to be surrounded by mountainous forest. The trek out of town is a fifteen-minute walk from our home, where the road narrows into a single lane with no sidewalks. The path into the forest cuts through a small Buddhist temple, which stands next to an ordinary-looking house. An elderly couple lives in the house with their fox-like Japanese dog. I wonder whether they are caretakers of the temple? Inside the forest, the tree trunks loom tall and the ground is soft and mossy. There is a logging road and several trails that lead to the peak, called Daimonjiyama, which opens into a sweeping view of Kyoto. We later learned that this lookout point is part of the Kyoto Trail, an extensive hiking trail that runs through the entire city.
During our first forays into these woods, we turned back before reaching the peak in order to beat the setting sun. A few days ago, we left early in the morning with a picnic lunch, and reached the lookout point for the first time. We were surprised to find many people already there, most of them elderly folks chatting and eating together on the log-benches. We had our picnic, then hiked down a different path into the city, stumbling out of the mountainous forest at the foot of Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion. The steep, downward trail was pretty hard on the knees! We emerged from our hike, and were suddenly surrounded by crowds of tourists swelling like a wave up the hill, heading to the famous temple. The hike was lovely, but in its aftermath the kids were tired and the adults were sore, and we walked around the city in foul spirits, had dinner, and caught our trusty bus back to our yellow house just as darkness was settling in.
We have grown comfortable here in the outskirts of Kyoto. Even though we are traveling for a year, we are not on a year-long vacation. Sightseeing can get exhausting after a while, and we are trying to balance playing the tourist with making a home and living our lives in a different part of the world. This home in Kyoto has been our longest pause since we left Calgary in July. In November, we will be on the move again through South Korea, Hong Kong, and Vietnam. We will pause again in December, when we’ll settle down in Chiang Mai, Thailand.