Crash Landed In Kyoto: Part One

Kyoto is a city trapped between two worlds. One part cultural Vatican, steeped in two-thousand years of deeply religious, often violent history. Another part thriving cosmopolitan hub, polka-dotted with tightly organized subways, shopping arcades and tired-eyed businessmen.

We arrived in Kyoto on a bright Sunday afternoon, half-cut from drinks on the train. With legs eager for stretching, I was more than ready to be unleashed into this, my first experience in a Japanese city. One short taxi ride later, and we were dropped off at our new home for the next four days: The Millennials Hostel.


The name can give you a relatively good indication about the overall vibe of this place. Young professionals in cotton scarves calmly clattered away on keyboards in the communal area. Wide-eyed bearded web designers roared in friendly debate over optimal Bitcoin investment strategies, as British indie rock gently blared over the loudspeakers.

Kia was rather unimpressed at the whole affair. I think he’d fallen in love with the rustic, drunken charms of our previous accommodation. All I needed to win me over was the clean, private rooms, the adjustable beds and the solid WiFi connection. That coupled with the unlimited free beer served every day between 5:30pm and 6:30pm – I was more than sold.

Living quarters at the Millennials Kyoto (Photo taken from

Suffice to say, the free beer hour is where we made the majority of our new friends. One of the most notable segments in that crowd were taking part in a program called Remote Year. Essentially, this is an organization which takes groups of people, all with the skills and opportunity to work remotely, and organizes a 12 month, 12 country tour for them to take.

To clarify, the program itself does not train people to work remotely, nor does it help them find work directly. The program simply arranges the flights, accommodations and finds spaces where they can work. Essentially, Remote Year handles the logistics, and leaves the members to do as they please. The Millennials hostel was another one of these work spaces, and they weren’t actually staying there. As far as I could tell, they came to work on the comfortable couches, meet other travelers, and partake in the free beer hour (can’t fault them for that)

Naturally, I was curious about this program. Near the end of my visit to Kyoto, I asked a small sample of them for an interview.



On our first night we had showed up pretty late, so after drinking as much free beer as we could, we decided to lace up and explore the area around our hostel. Located right next to the Kamo river, we were essentially in the Western/Central area of the downtown core, an area zigzagged with shopping arcades and restaurants. With most of the proper tourist sites being closed for the day, we decided to hit the streets and see what the people of Kyoto do after dark.

“This is totally you.” 


“Welcome to the future of fashion.”

After exploring the shopping areas, we decided to check out the streets closer to the river. There we encountered a tight maze of alleys and wooden tiled roofs. The compressed mishmash of merchants and izakayas (Japanese Pubs), was so densely packed it reminded me of some sort of Oriental Amsterdam

For more than one reason.


Bright pink signs of neon soon appeared out of the darkened woodwork, promising in broken English some of the most provocatively worded phrases to ever be hastily run through Google Translate (and clearly not double-checked, I might add). What we had stumbled upon was Kyoto’s discretely famous Red Light district, in all of its pink pastel glory.

A few blocks later still, and were passed through one of Kyoto’s 1600 Shinto/Buddhist temples. Young children smudged themselves with heavy incense while the elderly tossed coins into a wooden receptacle at the base of the shrine. They would then ring a bell and clap twice, muttering a brief prayer before shuffling off for the next worshiper to take their place.

The contrast was jarring, but such is the reality of Kyoto. An ancient religious capital, fraught with modern vices.

Pachinko arcade in Kyoto

Gambling is technically illegal in Japan. You cannot bet on sporting events, nor play blackjack, poker, or roulette (although there are speculations that this will change for the 2020 Olympic Games). What they do have is Pachinko.

How does it work? No one knows!

Basically, you pour in your hard-earned yen coins, pull a lever, and then frantically hit buttons for the chance to win steel ball bearings. After collecting your fill, you then take your beloved bearings across the hall to a totally separate business which just happens to LOVE ball bearings. They’ll then pay you in cash for them. Nothing like gambling whatsoever.

The next day it rained. A lot.

The next day, we awoke to a winter storm. Due to this, we didn’t get much accomplished, aside from some much needed laundry and a brief visit to Nijō Castle. Due to the aquatic weather conditions, I found myself greatly preferring the indoor segments (unfortunately there were no photographs allowed). However, when we did have to go outside, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the beautiful gardens surrounding the Edo era fortress.

Soggy gardens outside Nijō Castle. Landscaping influence courtesy of Dr. Seuss?

After the castle, we went back to the hostel to change our socks. After briefly consulting the Lonely Planet guidebook, we decided to check out the closest (and thankfully driest) attraction in Kyoto: The legendary Nishiki Market. Packed with tourists and steaming food stands, I’m glad I brought my appetite. As we discovered, this is a great place to enjoy Japanese street food ranging from pedestrian to exotic. At one point I ate a full (albeit tiny) octopus on a stick. It a had a quail egg inside it’s head instead of a brain! Neat!

“The fuck is this?” 

Later that night, perhaps to make up for being rained in, or perhaps to relive the Viking-like levels of alcohol fueled savagery we’d held in Hakuba, we decided to get drunk. Polishing off a premium bottle of Sake we’d bought in Nishiki Market in 20 minutes, we spilled out into the street, new friends in tow. Our destination: Gion, the traditional district known to be the favorite haunt of legendary icons in Japan: The Geisha.

Of course, it being 11:30pm, there were (in hindsight pretty obviously) none still hanging around, and while I hate to be anticlimactic, that’s sometimes the way travelling goes. Regardless, we rolled with the punches, paraded through few izakaya’s, and finished off the evening in one of Japan’s delightful photo booths.


After saying goodnight, for better or for worse, me and Kia decided to keep the party going. Memory at this point becomes hazy, but I do have a few photos to remind me of the general ebb and flow from that point on. The first and final stop for our private after party: tiny karaoke bar.

Accurate representation of our mental clarity at the time

There is an extremely embarrassing video from that night of me and Kia totally butchering Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. It is so cringy that I will not be posting it on the blog at this time. We were so tone deaf that afterward our performance, the bar staff reached over and took the karaoke computer away, stashing it safely behind the bar.

The time for singing had passed, but luckily, nothing really mattered … To meeee.

Friends from that night! (We assume…)

Much to the relief of the bar staff, we managed to stumble home at around 5am. This was probably the drunkest I’d been on the whole trip. The type of drunk where the world shook violently beneath out feet, and the only choice was to carry, (and to be carried) by the friend standing next to you, all the while singing Irish sea shanties.

What shall we do with the drunken sailor
What shall we do with the drunken sailor
Early in the morning

And indeed it was, early in the morning.

Lion statue mocking our hangovers

We were pretty rough the next day. Arising sometime around noon, we were still drunk from the night before, a condition we remedied by eating scrambled eggs with fried Kobe beef. Shortly after consulting the hallowed Lonely Planet guidebook, we decided the best use of our late start would be the Southern Higashiyama walking tour, which covers many of Kyoto’s top landmarks in one convenient path, with the starting point somewhat nearby to our hostel.

Southern Higashiyama Tour Map

From that point on. we commuted most places via bicycle. Taking the subway only allows you two fixed points of experience: where you enter the train and where you get out. You inevitably lose half the enjoyment of traversing the city to the identical underground halls of train stations. Believe me, the language over the loudspeaker may differ, but if you’ve seen one underground train system, you’ve seen them all. If weather permits, Kyoto is definitely a city to be experienced by bicycle. We managed it in the dead of winter so, your excuses are limited.


The first stretch of the walk was made up by a massive cemetery. Thousands of stone obelisks stood stark against the grey sky like some sort of miniature city for the deceased. As we left, I turned around and saw a lone Japanese man trudging up the hill. He must have been in his late 70’s, and was carrying flowers. Later in the walk, Kia confided in me that he had lit a prayer candle back at the cemetery temple. The wind had immediately kicked up and blew it out, as if to say, like a blunt Tokyo bouncer “No. This is for Japanese only.”

I’ve checked in with several Japanese sources, and I can confirm that we were okay to take photographs, so long as they were respectful in nature. Not being entirely clear on what that meant, we took as few as possible, and kept our faces stony and serious in all of them. However, that doesn’t mean that people walking through the park previously had the same idea…


A short walk later, and we had made it to the first massive temple along our walking route: Kiyomizu-dera. A colourful mix of tourists and worshipers made their way up the worn stone steps, while young girls in bright Yukutas (see below) crowded around selfie sticks. Video-bloggers with excessive, shoulder mounted Go-Pro’s pushed their way through the crowds, and children begged their parents to stop for matcha ice cream.

Little did I know, the temple we were about to enter held beneath its floors a pitch-black tunnel. This is the place which would play host to my first (and utterly unexpected) religious experience in Japan.

More on that next week.

Thanks for reading.






Monday Mythological Creature Roundup: Yōkai Edition

Japan hides under it’s kawaii cloak some of the most fantastic and bizarre creatures to ever ascend from the pits of human imagination. In Japanese, they called “Yōkai”, and these are some of my favorites.


Sokokuradai no Akaname
“Sokokuradani no Akaname” by Utagawa Yoshikazu

Bathing is an integral part of Japanese culture. Public bath-houses or “Onsens” are a indispensable component of any self respecting Japanese village, dating back for well over a thousand years, with the earliest on record being the Dogo Onsen in 712 AD, on the island of Shikoku.

Steam mysteriously floating through the air, coupled with a rigid expectation of silence. Social pressure, and the cryptic echo of drips allow the imagination to run wild, inspiring the condensation our most paranoid thoughts, the darkest of which are no better personified than the creature which haunts the glistening walls of Japanese bathhouses: The Akaname.

Akaname by Sekien“Akaneme” by Toriyama Sekien

First depicted in classical yōkai illustrations as monstrously deformed children with hideously long tongues, these creatures were first drawn with no explanation given, leaving their true nature open to interpretation. Later entered into the Edo-period book, Kokon Hyakumonogatari Hyōban, and they are first given the name “Akaneburi”, with the word “neburi” meaning “to lick”.

According to this, and later entries regarding them, Akaname reside in the sunken corners of dilapidated old bathhouses, surviving by slurping up the filth left behind by dirty bathers and lazy onsen staff. The moral hiding at the centre of this ghoulish tale is simple: Keep your bathhouse clean!

Akaname by Mattew MeyerModern imagining of the Akaname by Matthew Meyer

Historically speaking, during the time these tales were written it was suspected that all living things survived by consuming the substance which spawned them. Lice eat dirt, and at the time they were believed to have come from dirt, so too was the Akaname thought come into existence: Manifested as congealed grime, born from and feasting upon its environment, all the while horrifiying those unfortunate enough to stumble upon it.


Fucking Yikes
Duo of Kappa, seen here capturing an unfortunate swimmer

When it comes to mythological creatures from Japan, few are as quintessential and well recognized as The Kappa. Translated literally as “River Child”, they are said to dwell in the waters close-by to human settlements, and were often used to explain drowning victims who would be found dead with no outward signs of trauma.

Kappa by Katsushika HokusaiKappa by Katsushika Hokusai

Some believe the story of the Kappa is based on the Japanese giant salamander. Still others maintain it’s legend formed around sightings of the now extinct Japanese river otter, which was known to stand upright, and could have easily confused a panicked person into thinking they’d seen a monster. It could have been a combination of the two, mixing separate reports from different areas to create one creature, but as such its true origins are unknown, and will likely remain so.

Regardless of their true source, the Kappa legend did serve one undeniable function: as a fable to teach young children of the dangers from playing in rivers. I’m sure it was an effective deterrent, because there is one behavior particular to the Kappa I have neglected to mention till now, and it is one that would be sure to frighten even the savviest of boatmen, let alone small children …

No Thanks
 Kappa doing its thing… Yikes

At the time, it was believed that (and please bear with me here) the human soul was located inside a small ball called a shirikodama. This precious little item was purportedly held deep inside the human body, specifically … inside the anus.

This rare delicacy was reported to be the Kappas favorite snack, and they would do anything to get it, tearing them out of anyone unfortunate enough to swim near their dens. This part of the legend would also be used to explain loose bowels sometimes found in drowning victims. It is possible that this aspect of the tale presented another point of moral guidance for its intended audience: Don’t shit in the river nearby to town.

Setting a trap for the Kappa

Modern times have seen unexpected transformation of the Kappa from hated river rapist to lovable pop-culture icon. You can now see them plastered on businesses and products of all varieties. There is even a whole street in Tokyo named after them, Kappabashi-dori, where store-fronts have taken them on as their official mascots, emblazoning the Kappa’s image on everything from coffee mugs to pork buns.

Not made with real Kappa*

For these reasons one could argue that the Kappa has become the most successful Yōkai of all time, still recognized and remembered by Japanese people today. But it has done so at great expense, foregoing its dignity as a horrifying monster, and transforming from kowai (scary) to kawaii (cute), in just a few short generations. Hallowed beasts of old, tremble in fear before your new master: Culturally exploitative marketing managers.

“D’oh” – Kappa Simpson


Man in traditional Namahage mask

As you may have already gathered, moral guidance and social control play a central role in the function of Yōkai stories. That being said, we now come to a creature which epitomizes that function. They have been used to horrify and discipline children in the Oga Peninsula in Northern Honshu for countless generations, and they are called the Namahage.

Unlike the Kappa, these monsters have a specific root legend, well known in the Oga region from which they come. The story goes that when Chinese Emperor Wu of Han (born 141 BC) came to Japan, he brought along with him five demonic ogres (or “Oni”). After the visit, these ogres decided to stay, establishing homes in the two nearby mountains of Honzan and Shinzan. Specific details regarding this story vary from that point on.

What I can tell you however, is that every year during koshōgatsu (the first full moon of the New Year), young men in grass leggings, wearing horrifying masks and brandishing torches, descend upon local villages, and (much to the surprisingly relaxed amusement of their parents) scream at and terrify little children. What these kids don’t know is that these actors are often working in accordance with local parents. Sometimes they will even request that the actors impart specific lessons on their children during these highly ritualized nighttime “raids”, everything from better grades in school to brushing their teeth more.

Namahage descending from the mountain

Despite their hideous appearance and ferocious behavior, some older Shinto legends suggest that the Namahage are actually benevolent spirits, acting in the employ of the sacred mountain God’s (The “Kami”). They are sent to punish those who are lazy or wicked, bringing dishonor to the region. The Namahage derive their name from “Namomi”, which is the regional term for heat blisters, which would most typically afflict those who have lazily spent the winter huddled around the fire. “Namomi ko hagetaka yo?” – meaning “Have your blisters peeled yet?!” would be one of the most iconic phrases used by the Namahage to ridicule layabouts.

It’s the Eastern Ying to the Yang of Western Santa Claus. “Do exactly as your parents say, otherwise ogres will come and eat you.” Simple enough. In a society where strict familial hierarchy is paramount, and people are zealously bound to colour within the lines of socially acceptable behavior, such traditions are not all that surprising, but nonetheless shocking to see in action.

Below is a video (not my own) of what goes on during a Namahage festival.

Perfectly acceptable parenting style, or borderline child abuse? You decide! Cultural relativism is important to keep in mind here





From Zenkō-ji to Ice Monkeys: The Australian Colony of Hakuba

One flight, two long buses, and a 300 MPH train later, and we were in Hakuba. Located in the Northern part of the central island of Honshu, Hakuba Valley and nearby regional capital of Nagano were the primary hosts of Japan’s 1998 Olympic Winter Games, leaving behind a legacy that is still evident today. Typical of regions affected by the Games, massive amounts of accommodation were built in their anticipation, transforming what was once a charming local obscurity into a world-renowned alpine destination, notorious not only for it’s nine locally accessible mountain ranges, but also nearby temples, and the biological curiosity of the northernmost existing primates in the world, Japanese macaques.

Monks Be Hard AF
Japanese Macaques ride that special line between super cute and slightly terrifying

Scattered hotels of mixed architectural style and varying quality litter the landscape, from Swiss Alpen style lodges and traditional Japanese houses, to cold rectangular, buildings which more closely resemble Soviet-era research stations. Roving packs of powder hounds howl along the roads at night, eagerly taking advantage of the loose public drinking laws. You can see them at all hours, wandering the narrow roads and occasionally slipping on ice, stumbling to avoid boxy Japanese vans as they fly around the tight corners of this sprawling little town.

Large Russian-style Happo One restaurant … Owned by Black Chef?

Our hostel of choice was called The Lab, where we stayed for five nights. Staffed by a cheeky crew of mostly Australians (and two South African siblings), its location was fairly dead centre, just a gentle ten minute walk from the local Bus station (from which they kindly picked us up and dropped us off), and even closer to the nearby slopes of Happo One. Fortunately for us, this accommodation presented a distinctly more social vibe than at our last location in Niseko (the charming yet quiet, ski-in-ski-out resort of Northern AnNuppuri), and within minutes of our arrival we were clinking glasses, exchanging stories with new friends, and guzzling the local alcoholic delicacy: Chūhai (shōchū mixed with soda water and cordial, dangerously easy to drink)

Our first night we arrived late after a long bus journey from Nagano, it was already about 10pm. Being informed that tonight was the local pubs karaoke contest, we immediately threw our massive bags onto our bunks and followed our severely sauced new friends down the slippery road to town. Results were as expected:

Spencer ended up leaving the party early, after about two hours, yet somehow me and Kia managed to get home before him. Turns out he’d forgotten the way back, and chose to spend his evening wandering through ice fields (odd hobby I know). Could have easily ended up like the the finale of “The Shining”, but he managed to stumble in through the door just before we passed out.

Then next day we awoke to rain, so we took advantage of this most welcome excuse to sleep in, and relaxed, nursing our hangovers. Finally making it up and out the door by about 2pm, we explored the local town, soon to discover that Hakuba as a whole was  demographically very similar to our hostel. E.G. This town was essentially an Australian colony with heaps of Japanese restaurants.

For all its binginess, there really is something to be said for the comradely found in mountain towns. Hard working young people scrape together what they can, and come together in these distant lands to pursue the sport we love. Competitiveness takes the back seat as more advanced riders seem happy to dispense advice, fostering the skills of the next generation. We ended the days together in small, crowded venues, drunkenly making jabs at skiers or boarders (whichever one you’re not), and regaled each other with exaggerated tales of the days best lines and most brutal bails. Surface level and intoxicated though it may have been, I can easily say that this was one of the best weeks of my life.

To our friends at The Lab, we salute you!

Fashionable Man with SnowbikeTime to Reflect
Left: Immensely fashionable Japanese man on snowbike
Right: Myself, contemplating the utter excellence of my decision to visit Japan 

Now, let’s get into some specifics.

One of the most notorious characters we met at The Lab was a man name Max. When we first met him he was already sporting one of the hoarsest voices I’d ever heard, which was not something he appeared to have any intention of changing. Max was a man of many faces. Quite literally, he brought and wore at the bar (In order of least to most terrifying) masks of the Yeti, Jim Carrey (‘The Mask’) and Donald Trump, all along with two matching, photorealistic black BB pistols. They lacked the typical orange tip found on most BB guns sold in North America, and he assured us that if we were seen in public carrying them, the Japanese police would definitely “Either arrest or just shoot you’s straight up.”

Max's Mask
Max and his winning smile

While not exactly an ever-present figure in our daily interactions, Max still managed to insert himself into our lives with some preciously awkward situations. From passing out drunk on the hostel lobby floor, to nearly blowing his face off with locally purchased fireworks, Max is what they would refer to in his home country of Australia as a “Bogan” (Google it), and his presence, whether we liked it or not, became a defining part of this leg of the journey. While we met many others along the way (shout outs to Juma, Elea, Kailee, Phil, Hayley, Guy and Nicole!), Max has secured his top spot as one of the wildest human beings I have ever met.

At least he took his shoe(s) off… ?

Twinkle Twinkle Little Aus

On a slightly less hectic note, we did actually manage to get among some more traditionally Japanese elements in the region, starting with a guided expedition by Japan Ski Holidays, which picked us up from Hakuba, and brought us to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey park. A mixed demographic of mostly young families made up our bus, which we rode for roughly an hour, eventually reaching the small mountain town where the macaques reside. One brief hike later, and we had reached the view of a traditional onsen, invitingly pumping hot steam into the cold mountain air.

After a little more walking, we reached the ticket window, where we were graciously ushered through (having purchased the tour online), and in just a few moments we were surrounded by hundreds of disarmingly fearless (and thoroughly well pampered), Japanese macaques.

Monkey Onsen   SnowMonkeysCover

Top: People Onsen
Bottom: Monkey Onsen

Interview with our lovely guide Aoki! (sorry for the shaky camerawork, monkeys are distracting!) 

During our visit we learned that Japanese macaques reside in both the Northern and Southern regions of Japan, with the Northern variety (the ones we were visiting) being the larger of the two. These Northern monkeys have also taken on the curious adaptive habit of combating winter cold by bathing in naturally occurring hot springs. Rival groups of macaques will sometimes engage in turf-wars to secure domination of the prized baths, with only the dominant gang being allowed to enter the water. Interestingly, only the female and juvenile monkeys will relax in the springs. As our guide explained later, the males remain dominant by appearing larger than the rest, and having their fur matted down by water exposes the true size of their bodies, so they only very rarely partake in bathing.

SoakedMonkNot so looking so tough now, are you?

While being exceedingly cute, the experience of visiting the snow monkeys was slightly dampened by the more prevalent primate species dominating the wooden walkways: human tourists. I say that with the total awareness of the irony oozing from that statement, but I think its still worth saying. Anyone planning on making the trip would be advised to either go early, or choose a slow time of year to visit. If that is not possible, try your best to block out the screaming children and keep your distance from their teched out fathers as they jockey for position, vying to take the winning shot of what may already be the most photographed monkeys in the world.

All the same, the monkeys were still super adorable, and I think it was worth checking out.

Next on the tour we were taken to a small town between Jigokudani and Nagano, where we were treated to a traditional Japanese lunch. Trying our best to ignore the bratty Australian children seated next to us, who kept complaining that the Japanese were going to kill them with this “gross” food, I managed to enjoy my meal (which was objectively delicious, you ungrateful little shits, if a little exotic looking). Next we toured a sake distillery/museum and exchanged travel stories with some fully-grown, and thankfully more mature Australian tourists seated there. We ended the lunch portion of our day with Matcha green tea ice cream, and loaded the bus with smiles on our faces as we headed to our final destination, the temple in the dead centre of Nagano city: Zenkō-ji

Lunchtime!Our well-earned lunch

Zenkō-ji is unique in the fact that it is the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan, dating back to the 7th century. The city of Nagano started as a small town built around it, and eventually grew into the sprawling metropolis for which the entire prefecture is now named. Guarding the temple are two fierce Niō statues, a common sight in these temples. They are there (in theory) to protect the compound from the enemies of Buddha. Standing at about 20 feet tall, I personally think they’d do a pretty good job.

NioNiō Guardian 

This temple was founded before Buddhism split into different sects, and because of this it is currently managed by both the Tendai and Jōdoshū schools of Buddhism, with twenty-five priests from the former and fourteen from the latter who maintain the ceremonies and grounds of this immaculate temple.

Entrance to Tendai compound 

The first statues encountered once entering the inner grounds are known as the Rokujizō. These six statues represent the “Bodhisattvas”, people who willingly gave up their chance for enlightenment in order to provide it to others. It is said that they are able to travel between worlds, and communicate with the six realms of hell, starvation, beasts, carnage, human beings and divine beings.

Pretty heavy stuff for such zen looking guys, but I’m sure their sacrifice is appreciated.

The six Bodhisattvas of Zenkō-ji

The main Buddhist image located in Zenkō-ji is known as the “Hibutsu”, which means “Secret Buddha”. This idol is unique because it is thought to be the very first image of Buddha brought to Japan, which forever transformed the structure of Japanese theology in too many ways to count. The protocol of this temple requires that it’s location is kept an absolute secret, away from the eager eyes of everyone from the public, to even the head priest of the temple himself.

After a whirlwind tour of the temple grounds, we finished up our day and hopped on the bus back to Hakuba, sleepy from the sake and absolutely glowing from our first experience in a Buddhist temple.

We rode Happo One for the next few days, but the conditions weren’t ideal (lack of snowfall and too icy), so we ended up spending most of our time enjoying the local restaurants, preparing for our next leg of the journey. After a rushed goodbye last Sunday morning, we were on the road again, heading first back to Nagano, then taking another bullet train to Kyoto, the former political, and current cultural capital of Japan.

More on that next week.