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Charlie and Steve's Excellent Adventure

Tasting the world one meal at a time

The Heist – 2/4

Approximately 10pm, November 27 2014. 

 Emotions this acute should not be drawn out this long, they simply can’t it seems. But sadly they can, an entire existence can be squeezed into the space of a knife edge. That’s how we feel right now, as our bodies become a rubbish tip picked over by opportunists the air reeks of it, these vermin posing as people stink, a dusty unwashed smell is unavoidable and invasive. Are we going to die tonight? It’s that question that haunts us now, we can’t seem to get far enough away from it. What keeps this impossible feeling so alive and relevant is the numbing procession of codes, PINS and passwords we’re pouring forth in a procession of dehumanisation; it’s unavoidable, are we only alive to keep this flow of information going? In being pushed to the ground Charlie is hit in the head, the gun being the weapon of choice here delivering a judiciously chosen and unmistakable message. With wedding rings unceremoniously parted from our fingers we accept that nothing is sacred, not tonight.

 Pushing aside the terror of that lingering question we are forced to think rapidly, in this whirlpool we banish fatalism to somehow embrace cooperation. Fighting trembling hands, insufficient light and language barriers we fumble our information out, retention of possessions loses all relevance, in truth, a numbness washes over the both of us. With time joining a long list of other usually basic perceptions in a distant unreachable ether, the activity around us subsides, was it five minutes or twenty? I really can’t say. We are thinking a little more clearly now, is it because we’re gaining some emotional control or was holding onto that haunting question for such a duration just impossible?

 As the panting breaths squeezed out through a kind of muted moaning squeal gradually ebb to nothingness we are delivered into a slowly developing passivity. We’re left alone for the first time to slump cautiously into the small spaces of dirt that we now claim ownership over, leaves gather in all corners to begin the slow descent to compost. For the first time we are able to truly rationalise and think about the worst possibility and embrace a warmth that the possibility is now possibilities, a blessed plural. For now though this box is our home, crumbling brick encompasses our lives, a huge crack running floor to ceiling sits to my left with jagged exposed incompleteness all around telling a depressing tale. 

 Thinking about dying is a dread we are unable to retain for very long, it’s too severe. Of course it’s never far away, it hides around the dark corner of every thought we have, successfully forced away but never far enough to be forgotten. As we hear a car take off I’m strangely encouraged, it’s some type of development, we guess that they’re going to raid ATM’s. I have a sudden spike in my already peaking anxiety, one of my cards hadn’t been used on this whole trip, what if it doesn’t work here? What if they think I lied about the PIN? I wrestle with my panic, it feels like there’s only so much stress that can be felt leaving me more resigned than nervous. Emotions now seem irrational, forcing clarity through our clutching fingers faster than we can grab at it.

 In the passing of time we are left alone more and more, we even chance small snippets of conversation, an anchor of sanity that we both cling to like life rafts of the Titanic. My head is swimming from the hits incurred but I keep it to myself, I can’t bare the thought of Charlie worrying for me right now. Charlie also apologises for driving the decision to take this trip, a guilt undeserved which I fear I fail to quell adequately. With exchanges of ‘I love you’ carrying the weight of solemn wedding vows and cautious assurances that we are physically ok we wrap ourselves in a verbal embrace. We’re emboldened by this communication and there’s never too desperate a time for comedy.

“The next sex we have is going to be the best ever”

To borrow from the great Thomas Jafferson: May we have the opportunity to hold this truth to be self evident. This one small line speaks as much for our more controlled mood as it does for the germinating seed of hope: simple uncomplicated hope. For the first time in the eternity of a small moment the struggle to keep calm and focus is pulled back from the brink, we are permitted the relief of thought. We even chance a touch, Charlie reaches out to touch my leg, this blissful act like fireworks is incomprehensibly immense. It’s also horrifying, thinking more clearly I fear that displayed affection cannot help us here, Peru is a strongly conservative society and being gay is not overly celebrated. As comforting as touch is we can’t risk it; sparing words and sound I whisper ‘don’t touch me’ a little too harshly. I instantly regret it. I quickly follow up with my explanation and hope for the world that Charlie understands. All I really want is to feel contact again, but comfort is for other people, not for us right now. 

“Those who get kidnapped together, stay together”   

I can’t help trying to lighten to mood. Letting go of any sense that we can really affect an outcome here, it’s into a quasi palliative mentality: be as comfortable as possible. We hear a phone ring, and through partial understanding we think that the money retrieval is going ok, further reason for optimism, the voices sound casual and happy. Having no idea or sense of time we conclude that we are here till midnight at least to allow for a second round of ATM withdrawals, we become those criminal profilers off crime shows. This exercise of ‘work out whats going on’ is a welcome focus, we allow ourselves to engage in short whispered discussions, piecing together a picture of what’s happening to us. 

 Although the unthinkable question is still in the air we manage to successfully banish it to a forgettable place for the most part. We have noticed a drastic change in approach to us, the unrestrained violence of before is replaced by a quite calculated kindness, blocks are even brought in for us to sit on. This can only be good, there’s no reason to extend kindness to dead people. Throughout this period we both begin to truly believe that we are more likely to get out of this than we are not, a tipping point in this trauma, another life raft in the churning ocean. The more we observe the more the image is painted that we’re going to get through this. But that question cannot be truly banished until we’re free, positivity comes with a catch it seems, generosity could be simply gaining passivity and it’s just impossible to know. Hope is such a strong emotion.

 We are given our passports back, this is as puzzling as it is exciting. Our conversations take on a future tense, we now talk of what we’re going to do afterwards. Through relative calm two guys enter back into the room, this is not uncommon, they’re checking on us quite regularly, but this time Charlie is pulled to his feet. In an instant all of the calm I have managed to maintain threatens to crumble, ‘they’re taking him away’. In truth they’re just checking if he has anything more on him but I cannot help but think that he’s being taken away, and here I thought I was getting hold of myself. Control is mockingly shown as the thinnest of veils, possible isolation from Charlie is enough to create waves in my vision from stress I struggle to contain. It’s only for an instant but it’s enough to impart a grim reminder of my delicate vulnerability as we are held dangling from the precipice of sanity. 

 This story unfolds in uncatchable time, eternity in a moment, the universe drawn to a point. By the barest of margins we’re winning this battle, but what battle are we winning? We’re keeping our heads straight, the only battle we can perceive: we just hope that we’re playing the right game.

Part 3/4 published at 3pm (AEST)  

The Heist – Part 1/4

A year has passed in which we have documented and shared nearly every minute. There were however eight hours we missed from the road between Huanchaco and Trujillo Peru on 27-28th November 2014. This story begins at approximately 8pm in Huanchaco, Peru.

 There were signs. We tell ourselves through a fleeting veil of shared guilt that maybe we could have known, should have known. Why fleeting, the veil of guilt: No emotional space left in the mined out husk of our awareness, or just that the signs were too faint? In the rear vision mirror of this journey time continues to grant reprieve from guilt, the latter emerges as far the more valid buoy to cling to in this tempest.

Those hours trapped,

In the minute rampant.

On stones scattered reckless,

Minutes build those bowers mighty.

 I have always liked these words, they remind me of those critical moments in our lives. Small ‘reckless’ decisions are made every day with no great thought, many to pitter out before they tattoo anything of permanence. There are those moments though, the ‘minutes rampant’ that don’t dwindle to nothing but permeate the hours, days and weeks that follow, burning like wildfire, shouting so much louder than the time that follows, those hours trapped. On these minutes rampant we stand the bowers of our lives, hoping that we want to foster more of them than we want to extinguish? We all scatter those stones recklessly, never knowing which ones will trap eternities of time beyond their modest inception, but we scatter daily, the dry tinder ever ready to burst to conflagration. 

 We’re about to possibly have one of those moments.

 The history books will tell that we were, indeed are on the journey of a lifetime, with dreams of mountains, wild escapes and atheist spirituality in the face of natures grace. In a taxi plodding to our bus station a tad too slowly we’re also filling our lives with the undeserving importance of bus timetables. Both of these ideals are about to be stripped of all relevance. 

 As our taxi drifts a touch off the road we see some pedestrians dead in front. Hoping to all hell that he doesn’t run anyone over our concern turns to a sickening realisation as the three pedestrians instantly become assailants. In the manner of a few seconds we are two trapped in between four, just realising that this situation is what we fear it might be. The melee ensues as we realise quickly that we are in South America and we’re in the midst of a true travel nightmare, a minute rampant that one way or another, will be part of our lives forever. 

 In the tight confines of the taxi we struggle to fight our way out hopelessly outnumbered, and we nearly succeed. With my body partially over Charlie, gripping the edges of the door for dear life and kicking with all that my legs have I feel sharp pains in my head, shoulder and back. I attempt to block and see that the blows are a tyre leaver, that hexagonal snake raining thankfully restricted strikes to my skull. All the worst visions crowd me, we’re both screaming, refusing to realise that this is the end, we will not give up. I see nothing but a dark future before us both, In this moment of panic I realise I’m very likely going to die tonight, either from a tyre iron caving in my skull or in a more drawn out scene. A rare gift is decision in the manner of ones death, brave is he who makes a choice 

  Choice or not, the door slams continually on my hands and under the weight of numbers and the presentation of a gun we are contained. The taxi takes off under the hail of Charlie’s abuse to the taxi driver that has driven us to this end. Cheap upholstery mixed with a musty smell surround us as we drive for a short while having our clothes pulled over our faces and eyes gouged at to prevent us seeing. Through the haze of instinctive frenzy and dirty fingers prodding our faces the word ‘dinero’ calls through the din; money, they want money. I struggle to gather this rationalisation, money? This brutality is beyond a mugging, a grab for cash, the question posed is more about life and existence than about money, can this violence really be all about money?

 I cannot give up, we cannot give up. If it’s going to end I’ll do it my way. I wrest free and pop the lock and get the door ajar, I’ll jump to the road before they get me. But I won’t. Charlie is there and more powerful than the fear of dying is that of being apart. It’s a fleeting rebellion, the nightmare continues clouded in a reluctant submission, this minute is already burning rampant, the following hours or however long there is will be ablaze with the scents of this, the stink of this. The hour is indeed trapped, nothing beyond the sparking instant from the initial attack can be pulled apart, it’s all one moment, rampant.

 I can hear Charlie, I need to hear Charlie, he’s right beside me, our hips touching but he’s nearly as far from me as in those lonely years before we found each other; nearly. Charlie has beaten me out of the thick soup that is the fight or flight instinct, he’s urging my calm. I grab these words, I drink them up, he’s ok enough to think, it’s on the buoyancy of these words I permit myself to release the fatalistic choice and begin to float above the grip of panic. For the first time I process rather than react, if it’s about money, we can play that song. 

 Through numerous turns we are lost, we just don’t know if it’s only geographically that we are lost. The taxi stops and we’re forced out, still with our heads covered. It’s one thing to attempt to think clearly, it’s another to carry that concept in parallel to a belief that you are about to die. With any action we take affecting two instead of just one we are marched into the confines of four standing walls, a house that never was. No doors or roof adorn this box of white painted brick fencing a dirt floor. This may have started with the intention of being a house, a home: sadly a prison dripping in terror is all it’s amounted to. to this point the threat of the gun had been my own, Charlie was unaware. In the exiting of the taxi, we are now truly appreciating the same severity. 

 We find ourselves facing a white washed brick wall in advanced disrepair and forced to our knees, is this the moment? Aggressively we have our heads forced down and in the relative clarity we now cling to a fleeting hope that tugs at our sleeves, somewhere distant, barely perceptible. We stare at the wall waiting for the worst; I don’t see blood anywhere. Are they really going to murder us if they are hiding their identity? After all, dead people don’t talk. Realisation or not, fear this gripping has no space for tears. Past the instructions for quiet I insist on my final words. Charlie beside me, three is all I need: “I love you”.  

Part 2/4 published at 12:00pm (AEST)

Top 10 – Japan

 Like the last taxi left all alone on the rank at 2am there is but one stop before this journey continues on home soil. One month ago we metaphorically jumped in that last taxi of the night and set off for our final adventure of the adventure. Far from a nauseating ride home from a long boozy night that finally resigned to defeat, Japan is the country to finish on a high for this great adventure; the most expensive and possibly the most anticipated of all. So what was that final cab ride like, did we get the cabbie with an interesting story that swings by the kebab shop and turns the meter off, or did we get more of the sex-pest that talks only in lewd suggestive metaphors? Here’s our top 10 from the final cab ride to end all cab rides.

10 – Kobe Beef

  Food is somewhat important to us, possibly shamedly so. So to have the famous Kobe beef not so much cooked, but serenaded right before our eyes and fed to us piece by perfectly cooked piece was a treat we’ll never forget. Like any great meal, the food was outstanding but the theatre of the hot plate was the winner and deserved of rapturous applauds even though an encore was sadly not on offer.  

9 – Hiroshima

  Few places rise to prominence so swiftly and so sadly. The bomb defined this place on the world stage but in visiting Hiroshima, the bomb is a mere precursor to some of the greatest of human characteristics. Resolve, compassion, empathy and wisdom have risen above the mushroom cloud and rain down perspective for anyone who visits. We entered Hiroshima aware of the spectre of tragedy but left uplifted by a drive for peace and harmony that infects all that come near this sacred place.

8 – Akihabara

  For all the refinement, grace and simple beauty that Japan is known for there is a balance, and that balance can be found most starkly in Akihabara. This very formal of societies does present certain permissible opportunities to let your hair down, tease it up or pull it sideways; in Akihabara, anything goes. If there’s a weird kink it’s in Akihabara and it’s not swept under the carpet either in this world of weird, warped and wonderful. 

7 – Ise

  Temples not only make up an important part of the spiritual landscape for many Japanese, they’re tourist attractions in their own right. Combining architecture, grand forests, gardens and traditional ritual, Ise-jingu shrine sits beside bustling Ise town, a trip into traditional Japan and a food journey to enliven the most weary of traveller souls.

6 – Kaiseki

  Our final meal of Japan, the final farewell meal for the world, and what a way to sign off from the great adventure. The food was outstanding, simplicity in it’s purest form, but most of all it was the Kaiseki experience. Elegant ladies in kimono took us through an exquisite experience that is purely Japan in a setting to inspire poetry for it’s elegant beauty.  

5 – Nara

  Once the old capital of Japan, Nara calls back a time gone by from where much of Japan’s tradition and culture originates from. Rarely do places evoke an eerie sense of another time and almost never to the extent that Nara does. The roots of this great nation reach all the way back to this small place that many have forgotten but remains unforgettable to anyone who has made the journey to Nara and made it back. 

4 – Kinosaki onsen

  Close your eyes and think of all the images that make up Japan for you. You’ve probably just had a small vision of Kinosaki. Old style timber slatted buildings, narrow streets, arching stone bridges and lanterns are the world of dreams made real. Take a step out the door in your traditional wooden sandals and kimono to stroll the streets and bathe in any one of the seven natural onsen (hot springs). No need to imagine any more, it’s not a dream, it’s Kinosaki. 

3 – Sapporo Dinner: 

  Sometimes it all goes just right. From the nation most famed for seafood we ate from the island most famed for producing that seafood in a restaurant famed for doing seafood very, very well. But picking possibly some of the best seafood in the world isn’t enough, the intimate bar style setting, the crockery that was art in itself and presentation that looked too good to eat makes for happy boys. Best birthday dinner ever, shared with our good mates Aki and Ken. 

2 – Miyajima

  From a very traditional highlight for us, that being food, comes a bit of a surprise packet for a travel category that really doesn’t belong in the top five of our lists: sight seeing. Well that’s one way to describe it but a surprise packet is always welcome. The world is a garden, the world is a photo shoot, the world is a brush with nature and the world is a deservedly lauded scene that doubtless will never get tired. Sight seeing was never such a complete experience. 

1 – Fuji San

  Rarely a clearer number one has graced a top 10, and deservedly so. It’s a bit of a tough slog to be fair, climbing nearly 2000m in one day is never a picnic but as far as hiking pain goes the reward to pain is a dream. The scenery is immense and summiting one of the worlds most iconic peaks is always a thrill. Then come the highlights: sensational clouds viewed from above, a grand volcano crater and undoubtedly the best sunrise we’ve ever seen. Add to the mix we shared this all with Aki, making his first ever summit and we have an experience that lives up to Fuji San’s iconic status. 

What you’d rather be seeing – Japan

The last country of the Excellent Adventure was far from boring.  In fact this was one of countries I enjoyed photographing the most.

I have split this post into people, cityscapes, temples/shrines and finishing with Mount Fuji.  Japan was so beautiful and focuses heavily on shrines and temples I actually had to balance the number of photos of temples.

Posts coming up:

  • Two “What You’d Rather Be Seeing – The World” which are in my opinion my best 50 photographs from the year.
  • A What You’d Rather Be Seeing – Faces of the World” which were my best portraits and photographs of people from the year.
  • Check the category “What you’d rather be seeing” to see the earlier country photography summaries.


Charlie Winn

Two young girls in kimonos going out for the evening, Tokyo.


Charlie Winn

Girls dressed up in Akihabara, Tokyo.

Charlie Winn

Watching the summer parade down the mian street, Nara.

Charlie Winn

Making and selling woven hats, Tsumago.

Charlie Winn

Ladies heading home after visiting Yasaka-jinja, Gion, Kyoto.


Charlie Winn

Geisha’s on the back streets of Gion, Kyoto.


Charlie Winn

Shinkansen are renowned for being on time, they are managed exactky by the station officers. Kobe JR station.

Charlie Winn

Cityscape of Osaka from our apartment.

Charlie Winn

Curious deer, Nara.

Charlie Winn

Changing the way we view the urban landscape of Osaka. Dotonburi-gawa, Osaka.

Charlie Winn

Local train, Hokkaido.



Charlie Winn

Couples shrine, Ise.

Charlie Winn

To view a temple each person needs to clense themselves using water from the local spring. Ise-Jingu Geku.

Charlie Winn

Shinto priest, Ise-Jingu Geku.

Charlie Winn

Sunset, Miyajima gate, near Hiroshima.

Chalrie Winn

Steve hiking between Tsumago and Magome.

Charlie Winn

Deer lived in and around the temples and stone lanterns, Nara.

Charlie Winn

Temple and pagoda, Miyajima, near Hiroshima.

Charlie Winn

Peace park and the eternal flame, Hiroshima.

Charlie Winn

Floating gate at dusk, Miyajima, near Hiroshima.



Charlie Winn

Sunset from station 7.9 on Fuji San.

Charlie Winn

Volcanic black sand which makes Fuji San iconic.

Charlie Winn

Sunrise from the top of Fuji San (Mt Fuji).

Charlie Winn

Steve and Aki climbing the iconic image of Japan – Mount Fuji.

Charlie Winn

The peak of Fuji San covered in cloud, as we decend.


Gluttony Expedition – The Last Supper, Kyoto, Japan

 Scampering through a break in the rain we’re fishing our way through another notably irregular lane in Kyoto looking for our dinner tonight, hidden behind yet another one of those discrete doors that offer promise and suggestion more than invitation. For a month we’ve had our eye irresistibly dragged towards these suggestions, these promises all over Japan but now we aren’t just wondering, we’re welcomed in to what seems to be a guarded secret held by millions yet no one has let it slip. We’re greeted at the door by a lady in full kimono dress who hands us a bamboo umbrella to guide us through the narrow gap between the two small buildings of this house. The final farewell meal of this adventure has just begun, the last supper fittingly held in a setting of sparse simplicity before our plunge back into complicated lives.

 Past a compressed garden that boasts a calming water filled expanse to belie the space it does not have, we are in no time taking our shoes off to enter a room that feels like a grand hall, again reaching beyond its modest size. Our feet are in a cavity through the floor as we sit at ground level before an expanse of bamboo tatami mats. There’s nothing in this room, nothing that doesn’t feel like the room itself. A small nook at one end of the room houses a small wicker vase with just a few delicate flowers, a decoration swimming in too much space, filling just enough to make that space feel spacious enough for imagination to find a home. Clean timber slatted sliding doors and white paper walls surround us as we sit in this relatively small room that feels like an immense hall for the dining experience called kaiseki.  

Charlie Winn

HASSUN course: Hyotei Tamago (soft-boiled egg) with abalone, salmon roe, roast chestnut and ginkgo nuts.

  The last supper is about to begin and we are, after this years adventure, the blank canvases that belong in this blank canvas of a room. We left our old lives on hold a year ago, we abandoned the clutter, the layers of stress, distraction and misplaced ego on a year to cleanse and renew. For a moment our minds search for some music, something to fill the space but that need passes into nothingness, the hint of trickling water from outside is all that is required in this exercise in simplicity. The sound of water gives way to the zipping whisk of fabric as our host enters the room, this cavern just for us, to serve our green tea and hand towels before bowing, hands pressed to the tatami mats and face lowered close to those hands in servitude. The formality is a little confronting at first, yet this is kaiseki, as much about the food as it is about the ceremony. 

 Sashimi is brought in to sit upon our personal tables, all polished black lacquer and gold detail to house our array of fish, sauces, and sake in fine cut crystal. Kaiseki might be as much about the environment here as the food but make no mistake, the food is outstanding. From a time of dense tradition, kaiseki cuisine persists still to bring Japanese formality and simplicity to life, a moment to live the philosophical tenets so easily spoken yet rarely lived. A cleansing soup with akou fish and noodles cleanses our mouths in an exercise of restraint that keeps us searching for more flavour and continuing to find just enough to search yet further. 

Charlie Winn

TAKIAWASE course: deep fried eggplant, green soybean sauce with grilled sea eel.

  In this bank canvas of a room our minds do search out for the usual distractions we pass off as amusements only to be met with space, a type of forced mental expanse like thoughts forced to fill a vacuum. This house has stood for 400 years on the back of selling boiled eggs to travellers and although the fare has refined since then it’s these travellers who are now enjoying the tradition of the eggs as every visitor for 400 years has, oh the sumptuous eggs. On a platter with chestnut, ginko nut, salmon roe, abalone and tiny fried fish called gori, we are danced around tastes that are both nothing more than the raw ingredients and refined flavour all in one. Making this food seems painfully simple, imagining it seems impossible. Again our hosts engage in polite conversation enough to feel we know them but not enough to intrude; conversation is a trained art for geisha but these ladies are also adept at hosting formality to fill their role in this perfect space that is being created just for us. 

 In truth, kaiseki, is not our usual thing, it’s so quiet, so elegant that it’s easy to feel a little formal and stuffy, or it could if there was anything not carried out to exacting perfection. Our hosts introduce the next flavours only barely before we finish our previous dishes, a rolling sensation of taste is the journey we’re taken on, not a series of individual dishes. While the dining experience might not be our usual choice it’s this world, this parallel universe that is kaiseki that takes the idea of food and blows it up to a level that food alone cannot reach. No dish is powerful, no flavour lingers a moment beyond the next and all the while we are held, suspended somewhere between satisfaction and desire, contentment and eagerness, calm and excitement, restraint and indulgence. The food, the house and of course our hosts play their part in an illusion we do’t fully understand but willingly allow ourselves to fill the space of all the same.  

Charlie Winn

YAKIMONO course: grilled deboned sweet fish.

  Green bean paste swims around eggplant, topped with eel as the layers of flavour don’t so much build up but dance together in a growing ensemble. No longer do we search for backdrop conversations of other diners, music to fill this space or decorations to colour this room. For the rest of this experience that now seems elevated beyond some of the best food we’ve ever had, the room is just the right size, the hosts are not overly subservient but make for perfect companions and in this blank canvas of a room the last supper continues for two boys only just now ready to return home to a life uncluttered. 

 Tea, egg ice cream and fruit round off our night before being presented with matcha tea for one final bow with faces right down to the tatami. For a year we have been wiping clear the clutter and scars of a modern world; as the last bowl is placed back to the table a shared glance to each other needs no words: we’re ready to go home. Our two hosts bow continually and wait at the door of this house that is no longer just promise and suggestion, they stand in wait to farewell us till after our taxi has turned the corner out of sight. Just when we thought that food could get no better than the dinner we had in Sapporo, kaiseki takes food and makes an experience that goes far beyond food, it creates a world open for anyone to fill with their own thoughts, their own needs whatever they might be. Before kaiseki we were preparing to go home; after kaiseki we aren’t so much going home, we’re enjoying the adventures we call the life that came after kaiseki. Christianity has it all wrong, the last supper doesn’t precede crucifixion, it’s a beginning, a beginning to whatever you want it to be; or maybe Jesus just never had kaiseki.  

While you were working – Flower and Willow, Kyoto, Japan

 The snow leopard, the white whale, the blue sheep; all mystical creatures the stuff of fables. Adventurers and hunters alike have sought out these fables made real as much for a sighting as anything else, their rarity captivates, enthrals and intrigues. Again today we search for our own mystical fable: geisha. These captivating ladies are not only a sight to behold, they’re discrete and rare too catch by chance in the streets of Kyoto that seem to be their natural habitat; but what is a geisha? The simple answer is that geisha are highly trained performers adept at a range of traditional arts who entreat their customers to a true Japanese traditional experience. Geisha is actually two words: ‘gei’, meaning art and ‘sha’ meaning person. The closest translation is really artist or artisan, the geisha transform themselves to human art and one look abolishes any question to the lofty designation of human art form. 

 In the narrow streets of Gion, the area of Kyoto most famed for geisha, we have spotted these elusive ladies twice, fleeting glances of embodied grace with white painted faces engulfed in mountains of luxurious fabric to disappear in tiny shuffled steps too quickly than seems possible. Seeing a geisha is one thing, taking a photo is another and that’s Charlie’s mission, the hunt, that is building to the point of obsession throughout this time in Kyoto. Like orcas in Argentina, gibbons in Laos or lions in Africa, some things however aren’t meant to be, we enjoy the streets for the beauty that they are and Charlie contents himself with the still captivating image of a painted nape retreating down a tight laneway among the more common sighting of regular ladies in bright kimono. Charlie is no longer just a photographer, he’s got his hunting cap on and he’s not willing to give up just yet; it’s geisha season: game on. 

Charlie Winn

Japanese ladies dressed in kimonos, enjoying the temples of Kyoto.

  In true elusive fashion it’s glimpses alone as the geisha live up to the romantic notion that they live in a separate reality, the flower and the willow world. In past times the courtesans were the flowers and the geisha were the willows, termed so for their embodiment of both grace and strength. From a young age, girls set on the path to live lives as geisha, undertaking years of training in various arts to become maiko (apprentice geisha), not just adorn the costume. Through many stages of observation, tutelage and guidance from an onee-San (older sister) a geisha follows years of protocol and formal progression toward a vocation at becomes an all encompassing life. For now though, these hungry boys are calling a halt to the hunt which means that it’s ramen time. 

 From all over Japan each region has it’s own signature to the soup noodle dish of typically pork bone broth, and we’re out to try as many as possible, it takes a bloody good soup to call a stop to a geisha hunt. With Kyoto being a hub for Japanese culture the range on offer is immense, from salty soy based versions through to rich miso and nutty sesame, the humble ramen noodle turns out to be not so humble at all. The diversity is what catches us by surprise most of all, somehow ramen seems to cover all shades of flavour between the delicious simplicity of Vietnamese Pho to the punchy potency of a Thai curry, two wildly different dishes that had no connection, until now. 

Charlie Winn

One of the many flavours of Japanese ramen we tried. Kyoto, Japan.

  We really wish that someone would have said to us at the beginning of this trip that we would be scouting out a department store food court to buy tickets and wait in a queue for noodle soup. Oh how our disbelief would have bordered on outrage. So we wait in the queue of the Isetan food court along with the rest of the faces staring too close at smartphone screens with not a trace of embarrassment for our predicament. All we care about is getting ramen, we’ve toured extensively around this island nation on trains, we’re now doing it all again with our tastebuds. Today the rich soup, more like a gravy, explodes with a combination of miso and garlic topped with fatty scallops of pork; we never said it was a good dieting option, just that it was delicious. Eastern Honshu, you’ve officially been tasted. 

 With the lead weight that is a huge bowl of ramen safely in our bellies where it belongs, we wander out to resume the hunt for geisha, it’s back up to Gion. In truth, the streets of Gion are an attraction in themselves with temples every second block interspersed with small gardens, tight laneways and stores of sweets and ceramics at every turn. We share the cobbled streets with an abundance of ladies, and some men, in kimono feeling like we’re whisked back to another time to share a day out with Japan’s social upper crust. Away from the thrum of the crowd we take a veer down a laneway written up as possibly the most beautiful street in Kyoto and immediately the volume of the bustle decreases and the age worn yet impeccable timber facades close in a little tighter. We look backwards to a roaring main street from our tranquil laneway escape a little like perceiving the waking world from a dream, the flower and the willow world perhaps.  

Charlie Winn

Kimono dressed tourists negotiating with a rickshaw driver, Kyoto.

  This alleyway is Japanese grace exemplified, stone paving at a bend holds nothing but a single pot with a trained tree as greeting to a doorway which reveals nothing of the bold promise it suggests. Nothing of the laneway is straight, slight bends keep our vision, our world confined to a focused space as stories and hints pour down upon us from this slice of Kyoto that is nothing but aged stone, character filled timber and a host of suggestions and kept secrets. If ever there was a place that summed up the allure and mystery of a geishas face hidden behind a painted fan, revealing nothing but the suggestion of a glance, this laneway is it. For a moment the world outside carries on as we observe from the world of the flower and the willow. 

 The laneway twits and turns, secrets hinted yet never revealed as each bend as Charlie pulls up the camera quick-draw style. So reluctant to get in peoples faces Charlie has settled for the artistic representation of elegant visions of Kyoto, all hint and suggestion. Now though, a bold impetuousness has hold of him, he’s adopting his typical striding stance as the hunter takes aim at his target. In this laneway of flower and willow four geisha ladies are walking directly towards Charlie and like all good hunters there is no hesitation, he shoots, shoots, and shoots again. Discretion is out the window, driven by the unreality of this situation, this world we find ourselves in the hunter is in for the kill; this is the white whale, the lion, the gibbon and the blue sheep all in one.  

Charlie Winn

The rare geisha caught on camera in a magic Kyoto moment, Kyoto, Japan

  It’s a precious moment, I’m rooted to the spot just watching the geisha stopped dead at the shutter of Charlie’s camera snapping without halt. So what do you call it when an unbelievable situation becomes somehow even more surreal? You call it two of the geisha leaning to one side with two fingers signalling what we’re now calling the ‘Asian selfie pose’. The two more discrete geisha stand still with mirthful grins while the camera shutter continues still, unlike the shutter of my mouth that has stopped working all together leaving me gaping like a constipated goldfish. If geisha means art then I for one am a believer; in no gallery, exhibition or theatre have I been quite so stopped in my tracks as I am now. On little steps the four visions of art shuffle by to disappear into the growing crowd that come a little too late for the moment they wanted but we alone were treated to. Looking back they’re at the end of the lane now, just a few shuffles from the real world, willows wrenched from the ground and transplanted into a world that isn’t theirs but we view them still, from the world of flower and willow. 

While you were working – Slippery Slope, Kyoto, Japan

 Swallowed into a great cavity between two buildings we’re engulfed into a truly Japanese universe, a universe of food. Nishiki market is Kyoto’s answer to every food lovers dream; a narrow arcade that runs for about four city blocks crammed with everything weird, wonderful and delicious about Japan. Smells of soy, seafood, salt and seaweed fill the air like an edible beach morning as we push through the typically organised press of people similarly out for their morning flavour fix. Food food everywhere but not a grain of rice to pass these salivating lips; our first task this morning is shopping time and if we so much as look twice at a fish cake or stop to taste test an octopus ball it’s onto the slippery slope to high blood sugar levels and nap time in public. No, resolve is high, shopping is by far the most torturous mission of this year; and we’re on it. 

 If it isn’t painfully obvious to everyone in the universe already, Japan does beautiful rather well. There’s beauty that’s striking, beauty that’s intriguing, beauty that’s esoteric, provocative, elegant and all flavours in between; as many flavours of beauty as there are, there’s always one that seems to be missed. Until you come to Japan. We’re far from the airy elaborate flight types to waffle about beauty and beautiful things but sometimes we just have to call a spade a shovel and ceramics are a Japanese favourite. Food is always an art form and the plates, bowls, platters and dishes that serve the art are just as much art on their own. Items should never match apparently, they should be individual and in browsing the shelves of hand made pieces, yes I called a plate a ‘piece’, it’s hard to deny that they’re damn pretty. We simply must have some.  

Charlie Winn

Getting our sauce pot engraved, Nishiki market, Kyoto, Japan

  For a moment we’re not slugging it up mountains, wearing the same shirt three days in a row or eating dinner in a gutter somewhere in south east Asia; for a moment we’re embracing our inner homo in a world of gorgeousness. We stop short of twinkling a rolling wrist in the air to terms like fabulous or to-die-for, but be it ceramics, kitchen knives or prints on fine cotton there’s a completeness to style in Japan that can’t be denied. Imperfect, elegant, curious, unique and all other flavours of pretty don’t compete but coexist. For these anti-design kids the pieces fall into place, true design and beauty collects all evocations and balances them all in this parade through Nishiki market. The secret of Japan’s vaunted design aesthetic is now explained in terms that glossy magazines have chased for years. We haven’t thought about food for at least half an hour. That’s right, the beauty of Japan has been refined to a single sentence; you heard it here first ladies and gentlemen, it’s so pretty it stops us thinking of food.   

 The cross over to food does come in a cool copper sauce pot we pick up as a usable keepsake of this trip, we even get a message hand engraved into the side translated to Japanese characters. The excellent adventure just became immortal. With our bounty in tow it’s time to stop this restrictive nonsense, a glazed little octopus stuffed with egg goes down with some fish cakes to set us on our way; beautiful things can only keep us from the slippery slope for so long. With a bag full of pretty things and stomachs full of food it’s back to change before heading out to a much awaited cultural pursuit: tonight we’re off to Kabuki. 

Charlie Winn

A night at the theatre, Kyoto, Japan

  Now, if you’re like me at all you know that Kabuki is basically Japanese styled theatre with elaborate costumes and makeup, simple enough. But of course it’s more. To understand Kabuki it’s better to get a basic gist of the history. In the early 1600’s Kabuki was born, an all female group performed the highly erotic performance which, no surprise, became popular. Fearing for peoples morality, the conservative Tokugawa clan decreed that Kabuki must only be performed by males and herein presents the quirk we see. I’m just gonna say it, Kabuki is camp, gay camp, camp as a row of pink tents pitched on a catwalk. Steeped in tradition and history yet lathered with flamboyant camp, kabuki actors are born into roles, not trained as such with ‘Oyama’ specialising in playing female characters. Centuries later the Tokugawa clans decree to maintain ‘morality’ results in cross dressing and camp theatrics. While this is not amoral in any way, I can’t help but think that this is not what the Tokugawas had in mind; hilarious.

 From our morning immersed in the refined point of perfect beauty that gets refined that little bit further, Kabuki is a bit of a shock on first viewing. The costumes are elaborate and grand befitting Japanese style but the performance is comical, slapstick, loose and out of time in parts, somewhat like a high school pantomime. Of course we don’t understand the dialogue but the storyline is easy enough to pick up, here’s what happened on our night at Kabuki; from a very Australian perspective. 

Charlie Winn

Ladies in kimono seen in the reflection of a ceramic store window, Gion, Kyoto, Japan

  First the demons perform a ritual dance on stage to introduce the evil guys to the story with devil horns, fangs and aggressive masks, lets call them the christian conservatives. Then the white faced geisha dolls shuffle onto stage but without the choreography that a drag troupe usually has, we’ll call this gay troupe of free thinkers, libertarians and feminists a sleeper cell, terrorists if you’re a Murdoch media consumer. Or possibly the great threat to global morality, you choose. The story progresses as one of the christian conservatives is trapped in a storm inside a small house with one of the pro-choice fruits. In total darkness they console each other and the sparks of romance ensue. On meeting at their arranged blind date in daylight, the gun-toting amoralist meets his civil libertarian cross dressing lover for the first time. Conflicted yet undeterred they cross the parliamentary floor and decide to put differences aside. A conscious vote was always going to end this way.

 On a secret tryst in the forest the christian lobby have discovered who has been leaking documents to Fairfax media and surround our lovers. The slippery slope metaphor enters the narrative. Cries from the mob “First you took our slaves”, “Women can vote now”, “Aborigines are getting employment” are hurled at our terrified lovers: amazingly we can now understand Japanese. The christian conservatives fairly enough have seen humanities moral high point slip over the years and are intent on stopping this abomination; next these evolutionists will want free education and literate women, and boats; boats are bad and that leads to child abuse obviously. The pathway to societal meltdown seems so obvious, these terrorists must be stopped. The government front bench descends to tear the lovers apart in elaborate charaded dance, taking them back to Hillsong HQ as the stage dims to darkness and all hope is lost.  

Charlie Winn

The colour and costumes of the Gion area, Kyoto, Japan

  The conservatives seem to have won, passion is kept suitably in check and sex once again only occurs between married men and women as god intended: in the dark, fully clothed, in the missionary position only, with much pain and exquisite shame. 17th century morality might not be lost after all. But of course there is a hero, the mother geisha all in white, graceful and elegant reveals she also has dared to love one of the mentally malnourished and outs herself for the cause. The audience applauds her bravery. Distention in the ranks ensues, a spill is called and Tony is deposed and crucified at the altar of Q&A. Josh Thomas throws to intermission of sweets and beer. The story crescendo’s with a battle, or an orgy, we can’t quite tell but the evil powers are vanquished casting morality down the toilet, soon there’s to be taxes for churches and even the moral elite will have to sleep with consenting adults; the slippery slope steepens. The lovers are given full blessing and run off literally into the sunset, or New Zealand, on elevated heels and flapping wrists. It’s enough to wipe your tears with a pink hanky. 

 Leaving the theatre we’re all smiles as much for the ‘steep moral decline’ of our world as for the performance itself. From the acute fine edge of Japanese aesthetics Kabuki has revealed a fun, lighter side to a culture that knows more than one way to make something beautiful. From centuries back this art form, and it is an art form as much as we make fun of it, has persisted and thrived subversively within it’s gender confines. It’s not the typical restrained perfection we often think of from Japan, but the exception is so often the one that makes the rule.

While you were working – Beautifully Boring, Kyoto, Japan

 We’ve been avoiding the elephant in the corner all this time in Japan, a country so famed for tradition and rich culture always has a beating heart which feeds that culture. In Japan, that beating heart is none other than the city of Kyoto. We’re finally in our third capital of Japan, from 794 – 1868 the emperor resided in Kyoto, all the way up until Emperor Meiji took the reigns from the Tokugawa clan and in so doing, shifted the seat of power to modern day Tokyo. In this vortex of history, the place that tells us everything about modern day Japan, what’s to do? Well the same as everywhere else in Japan of course, we’re off to look at temples. 

 From north to south, east to west, it seems that visiting a temple, a shrine, a gate is the thing to do in Japan; almost to repetitious boredom. For these outdoor junkies the continued indulgence in gracious vistas is a conflicting one; where’s the gritty rough edges, the unrefined humanity, the retention of raw simplicity? The cultural fringes we often seek out in travel are nowhere to be found in Japan, just polished refinement of a nation honed in the furnaces of this city, Kyoto. Even the wild coast and untamed forests have an eerie perfection to their beauty that elevates us but seems, at times, too perfect to be real. The heart of the beating heart can wait for just a moment, we step off the train just outside of town for a hike into the forest to see the trees, mountains and of course, temples and shrines. 

Charlie Winn

Steve leading the way, past another beautifuk shrine, another creek, another temple to another lovely meal. Kurama, near Kyoto, Japan.

  Delivered right to the foot of the pathway, of course, we’re veering around the buildings of a cute old town before stone stairs that have stood for centuries rise up to disappear into the green wilderness of acer trees craning over the path like a protective shroud. We’re hiking up the hill, a mountain before us, sweating and beginning to tire; but this is not how the story usually goes. We pass garden ponds with bright fish, ornate shrine gates as we walk stairs that feel more like a design feature than a mountain path guided all the while by bright orange lanterns. We’re hiking, but we’re not really hiking. Upward into misty mountains we go, not from civilisation into a great wild as we are used to doing but somehow further into the heart of civilisation, into a wilderness that seems to further refine our world.

 On this hike that feels more like a pilgrimage we pass tall timber reaching to the sky and bare trunked trees arrayed in perfect form like silent soldiers standing to attention. All around us is a wilderness, it’s a wilderness but it’s also a civilisation from a time past and present. In the temple-a-thon that is Japan we’ve been bombarded by an undeniable avalanche of uncomplicated beauty, the kind of beauty that has no definitive style or affinity with a passing season. In the eerie cloud choked forest canopy the stone, the halls and the gates call out a rare refinement of beauty and civilisation that doesn’t conflict with this environment but is carried by it. Japan might be a beautiful monotony of beauty, but monotony this beautiful can only be Japan and it can just carry on being beautiful; nothing more seems necessary.  

Charlie Winn

Most shrines are made of wood, preferably cedar, and painted orange. Kurama, near Kyoto, Japan.

  Tucked in the heights of where feet alone can take us, small shrines, pools and lonely stone lanterns guide our path in a disruption of nature that would often drive us crazy but just manages the fine balance of sitting within nature, not on top of it. Cresting the mountain peak our pilgrimage is complete, the descent begins weaving steeply down through a forest and towards the rushing waters we can only now begin to hear. Down and down we venture along with the rain that pours so relentlessly until we are across that rushing water and the bamboo platforms over the river that house fine dining close enough to touch the gushing alpine stream. Of course in Japan, after a short hike you can enjoy top class cuisine suspended just a metre or so from a postcard stream tumbling over moss covered rocks; that happens everywhere right? Or you can visit another temple across the road, of course, what’s a meal without a visit to a temple?

 At every stop in on this venture in Japan we say to each other, not another temple, we’re temple’d out. Yet as we step off the train to each next town or city we’re off to the temples mainly because that’s the thing to do in Japan but because in this very tourist type venture that we’d usually decry there remains an inspiration, a grace that simply can’t be denied. On our way back to town we’re back on the train and facing another Japanese knife edge balancing act, rather unattractive cities that don’t seem entirely oppressive at all. And it has to be said, the centre of Kyoto is not what we’d expect from the beating heart of a nation filled with effortless beauty; it’s actually pretty stale.  

Charlie Winn

Contrasting the beauty of the shrines are the practical and efficient trains and stations of Japan.

  What’s not stale though are the outlying areas of this great city, and it is a great city. Gion is commonly labelled ‘the Geisha area’ for the proliferation of elegant ladies that occasionally walk the streets in full Geisha regalia, a kind of rare species for an urban photographer. There might not be any Geisha today but there are an inordinate amount of men and women in kimono of all colours. The blocky grey functionality of Kyoto city centre has given way to small gardens, timber houses and elegantly trained trees as todays mountainous beauty shows an urban face. It’s in this area that the Kyoto’s reputation resounds, the beating heart pumps with vigour and power that feels like it will never cease from a time gone by that refuses to be drowned or fade to grey. Japan can be at times a little monotonous, maybe boring; but it’s hardly a burden when it’s beauty that’s more than just beautiful.

While you were working – Golder than Gold, Kinosaki, Japan

 Our toes cling to the ragged rocks so comfortably to stare over the edge into ebbing waters below, lives lived near the sea don’t forget this too easily. The ocean slops and slaps against the rocks in such familiar fashion but it’s not our Pacific Ocean, it’s the sea of Japan, a world away but all the same, the same water all over the world but this part of it is particularly clear. All water in Japan seems to be clear. Mika from our Ryokan casually tells us that the sharp detail we can see below the water is ten metres down; maybe it’s not just the same water all over the world. 

 The water might be clearer than we’re used to but the aggressive coastline that rises up from the waters is a Goldi-Locks setting for Aussie minds: just right. Rugged headlands jut and jag wild and steep from the ocean that belongs on a beer commercial for its purity, wrapping around small inlets that harbour tiny clustered fishing villages from the oceans rage. It’s a calm day today as we skip around rocks and into ocean caves but lines of concrete break-walls tell those of us familiar with the ocean that this tranquility isn’t always the case. At times this purest ocean rises up too battle the wild coastline and discard this scene of passive serenity into the churning foam of Neptune’s fury. The water might be clearer but in the end it’s all one planet, one water that surrounds us all on our islands of land that now seem so fractured and distant. 

Charlie Winn

Deserted beach on the northern coast of Japan, near Kinosaki, Japan.

  The ocean always calls us back home to some degree, but the flight of fancy cannot remain; we’re back in Kinosaki for more onsen time. We’re robed up in our Kimono and clopping the streets in our timber sandals in vastly more comfort than yesterday. The process of an onsen is still a levelling one with vanity left at the locker for a very personal re-introduction with the life sustaining water that Japan seems to hold in high esteem, correct esteem, more than any other country we’ve been to. Water, obviously the most vital and abundant element on this planet, so abundantly disregarded by so many and vitally abundant for too few that merit it’s obvious importance. Japan remains one of the most densely populated nations on earth and where less populated countries drink from cesspits and blur the lines between waste deposits and waterways, there’s a more accurate set of priorities here in Japan. Open stormwater drains are stone lined and teeming with healthy fish like garden features, oceans glisten a white sand turned glowing green and wells in major cities still draw pure life sustaining water.

 Into the onsen it’s bath time, surrounded by water we take our small stools to wash; we need to be clean before entering the treasured water, not enter the water to become clean. Imagine water as a valued commodity befitting its importance, not another on the list of resources to be used or consumed. From Australia, the most arid continent on earth, this abundance of such a precious resource feels decadent, guilty. Pure drinkable water runs a permanent slick over the vast tiled floor while showers and taps that have never seen a water-saver device pour out the liquid gold to fill small buckets in seconds. From a life of short showers and waiting till dusk to water a garden lest it evaporate, this world of water feels like a bourgeois excess like a vice, a drug.  

Charlie Winn

Sea of Japan from just north of Kinosaki, Japan.

  In this world of clean, this world of pure, we are again draping over rocks wild and untamed with the hot mineral rich water sweeping away our ails. As usual we’re joined by a group of young guys, maybe early twenties, all naked and jumping in the springs with the casual sociality that Australia’s equivalent demographic might enjoy a beer at the pub. This slice of Japanese culture so effortlessly sweeps aside the vanity, the self deprecation, the misplaced introversion that so readily afflicts youth culture that we know of. In this light it’s so hard to visualise the contradiction of Japans sad youth mental health state. Suicide rates are immense while social disorders are commonplace, Japanese youth are sometimes known to lock themselves indoors or eat lunch in a toilet in place of the terror of simple social interaction. So commonplace is this sad tale that there’s even a social designation, Hikikomori they’re called. Modern Japan is so close to perfect in so many ways but that perfection does come with a price tag, maybe we’re seeing an old time remedy struggling against the innumerable ills of modern demand that no amount of water can quite wipe clean.

 Here now, draped over rocks like advertising mer-men characters we take it as a sign of our comfortability that first a group of older men engage us in conversation before the group of young guys fish out a few exchanged sentences. In just two days the waters of Kinosaki have washed clean a lifetime of accumulated consciousness and shame, here we are naked in the night sky charading an attempted cross language conversation laughing with these young guys who punch the air to imitate the first Aussie they can think of, footballer Tim Cahill. We could be in a pub, on a guided tour or a hostel common area in this jovial conversation; but no, we’re stark naked in water too clean to hide what now so obviously doesn’t require discretion. 

Charlie Winn

On an evening stroll in our kimonos through Kinosaki, Japan.

  The air still carries a comfortable almost-cool feel with the night time streets gently aglow from the warm tones of stone lanterns. It should feel like an entire town in fancy dress but bizarrely this dress so outlandish for us seems only appropriate as we deviate by a sushi restaurant for dinner and a beer. The ungainly gait of our timber sandals is gone, there’s possibly an emerging rhythm to our slower than usual amble as a secret is shared on a discrete bow given and returned by others also in kimono. The canal that trickles beside us would be choked with rubbish, cloudy water or worse in other countries but here the bright carp swim among mossy stones and healthy plants. We’ve all heard the expression ‘black gold’, now it just seems so wrong, like it’s always been wrong. The most precious thing we have is clear, not black, more precious than gold, oil, diamonds; we can’t wash in oil, drink gold or feed our crops with diamonds. Who needs to parallel it to gold, diamonds or otherwise to give it a sense of value, the most precious thing we have is all around us and it’s neither black nor gold but like a diamond, in the right light it definitely does sparkle. 


While you were working – Walk of Shame, Kinosaki, Japan

 On rain slicked roads we walk the familiar walk, one backpack on the back, one on the front like a heavily pregnant hermaphrodite hermit crab. For so much of our time we attempt in vain to wipe clear any lingering stink of tourist cliche but on these ambling staggers from train station to accommodation there’s no strategy beyond owning it like a Christmas knitted jumper that seemed like such a good idea in front of the mirror that morning. Once again in the jaws of that public shame there’s an iPad held aloft to the world like some biblical scholar reading from a stone tablet to the unenlightened that refuse to; are yet to gather. Of course the place we are staying seems to be closed, the place we think we’re staying. A short dash to ask at a nearby shop and we’re eventually in to the place we thought was ours, then didn’t; the door closes behind us blessedly calling a halt to this oh so common parade of indignity.  

 We’re in Kinosaki-onsen, just now, the moment the door closed behind us signalled our arrival. So far in Japan we’ve stayed at traditional Ryokan’s for Charlie to pretend he can sit cross legged in comfort on the traditional tatami mats but we’ve successfully avoided the full weight of traditional beauty of a true Ryokan experience. We’ve also been to Onsen, or hot spring baths, but as yet haven’t entirely indulged in the waters that are as mentally therapeutic as they are restorative to our travel weary bodies. Stepping out of our shoes and into slippers we’re led into a reception room for a siphon coffee that’s made out of more beakers and flasks than I remember from high school chemistry. OK, I didn’t study chemistry at school to be fair but I have a fabulous imagination. From coffee to our room the Ryokan fantasy is a fantasy no longer.  

Charlie Winn

Steve entering our ryokan (Japanese style hotel), Kinosaki, Japan.

  Slippers off this is no Japanese cliche tight little room, a massive room is divided in half by bamboo and printed fabric curtains with our futon beds on one side and a small traditional table and seats in the other. Not a single unnecessary item clogs this minimalist expanse that leads through paper screen doors to a sitting room overlooking a willow lined canal arced by stone bridges. Beautiful as it is we’re not in the posh option, in fact it was the cheapest place we could find but money is so rarely necessary when elegance is as easy as breathing. In snippets and slices we have felt the unrestrained simplicity of traditional Japanese accommodations but a fuller picture has eluded us; until now. 

 As much as we could sit in the small bamboo chairs here for an eternity and watch the willows bow to kiss the waters surface, it’s time to gown up and soak in an onsen. One of the attractive features of Kinosaki, apart from the many onsen options, is that tradition has been held close in this small retreat of a town against the tyranny of convenience. After a short debate on whether we should wear undies under our kimono or not, boys kimono mind you, we’re robed up and slipping our toes through the patterned straps of our old style timber sandals. Exiting back through this sliding door from which we escaped the wretched walk of shame, we’re about to test out the cloddy timber sandals in full length patterned Japanese robes. We’re the definition of masculine. As for what’s under our kimono: does a Scotsman tell what’s under his kilt?  

Charlie Winn

Walking to the onsen in our kimono and wooden slippers, Kinosaki, Japan.

  With comically broad smiles we’re back through the door with our little towel bags in one arm like society ladies out for a spot of high street shopping feeling a little silly, or enlivened, who can tell. It’s safe to say that timber sandals aren’t the comfort choice but in short time we’re clopping along like a couple of show ponies on parade, short steps more like a dainty filly than the raging stallions we’d prefer to be. Fillies or stallions, one thing we are not is afraid of something new, we’re perched atop an arching bridge taking in the gentle sweep of the canal through this town lined with stone lanterns and dripping in old world charm. Every snippet of imagination, every image of gracious Japan comes roaring at us in a moment to make us feel both in place and horridly out of place at the same time. Are we gliding into a local culture or are we ascending to an even more shameful tourist cliche that we haven’t quite realised yet? 

 We aren’t afraid of new things and we aren’t quitters either. After a quick check that our kimono are suitably covering us it’s time to face the world and strut with pride; as much as one can strut with pride wearing a movement restricting kimono and timber sandals but I think we pull it off. A few metres is all it takes, a few metres to turn any lingering embarrassment into fun adventure. Yes we’re dressed like ladies, yes we have a dashing turquoise towel bag, yes we have the restricted gait of a fashion victim in bad shoes but we also have a town full of people we’re never going to see again; I think the expression is: check-mate. And the best part is that this novel feeling is far from a novelty at all, in just a couple of sweeping turns of the canal we’re strolling the old world of Japan in a style that is not only comfortable but subtly forces upon us the actions and emotions we chase. Timber sandals ensure a slow walking pace, there’s no pockets to be laden with phones, keys or wallets and the kimono is not an outlandish attempt at hipster fashion, just simplicity to remove pretence and vanity while being beautiful as the same time; I still don’t know how that happens but it does.  

Charlie Winn

Canal lined with willow trees, Kinosaki, Japan.

  Into the onsen we’re again engulfed by the vanity crushing world of Japanese baths. History tells us that onsen are the place for honest conversation with nowhere to hide, as if the kimono in public wasn’t levelling enough. Twisting the key back from the locker we’re nude again and soon plunging into the restorative waters. We’re oddly alone with the baths all to ourselves, just Charlie and I, the two of us in a world where there’s nowhere to hide, with nothing that needs hiding. Sometimes silence is best. We search for the vanity, the shame, the awkwardness of today; we search for a care in the world to soak away but there’s nothing there, it must have all gone up with the steam that dances into the black night sky above. 


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