Rule Number 2: Climb dodgy stairs.
Now I don't mean 'dodgy stairs' as in 'stairs Health and Safety would have a heart attack over', or 'stairs that lead you to somewhere you could get arrested'. I'm talking about the mysterious-but-mostly-harmless kind of stairs you'd discover while out for a walk. See, this is my theory for Rules 1 and 2: if you stray from the path once in a while, you might find something awesome.
I questioned this theory (and my sanity) while lost halfway up Fushimi-Inari, at 10 in the morning and nothing but bamboo for company.
I landed at Kansai International Airport on the morning of Monday 22nd Februrary, and having picked up my Hello Kitty train pass to Kyoto (and then gotten lost for an hour and a half inside and around the micro-city that is Kyoto station), I went straight to a high-energy taiko drumming workshop. Why did I go to an hour-long taiko drumming session straight after a long-haul flight, and why did I then walk for half an hour from the taiko centre all the way to Gion? Because of my next rule.
Rule Number 3: Do things.
The following Tuesday morning, I laughed... okay, groaned... in the face of jet lag and got up bright and early to travel to Fushimi-Inari. I only had a few free days in the week to explore Kyoto before the two-day sake brewing course with Gekkeikan Sake, and wanted to make the most of my time in this beautiful city. This was no time to be idle. In fact, when I'm travelling, there is never a time to be idle. Why stay still in one spot when you can go see all the things and eat all the food?
Straying from the stream of torii was a no-brainer when the set of dodgy stairs revealed themselves. The rough, winding set of steps led myself and a few other intrepid adventurers up and away from the main part of the shrine. I kept going up, and up, and up... and suddenly I realised I was totally alone.
Rule Number 4: Do things even when you're scared.
People have often described me as 'fearless'. Nope, that's not true – I have plenty of fear, trust me. It's just that my excitement for what could be past the fear is a lot stronger (except for when it comes to large spiders and butterflies. Yes, I'm scared of butterflies). That's why I continued to climb halfway up Fushimi-Inari and discover the beautiful bamboo and the view. That's why I got up early again the following Wednesday morning, conquered my fear of taking the bus and travelled to Kinkakuji. That's why I could put my map back in my bag when I got lost around the Kyoto Imperial Palace gardens later that day, and find my own way to Nishiki Market on foot.
I wasn't completely alone for the whole week, of course. Before the brewery course on Thursday and Friday, I was invited to a sake-pairing dinner with Gekkeikan Sake and Le Cordon Bleu crew, where I met the wonderful bunch of people I'd be spending my time with over the next couple of days. The course was conducted in Japanese, but there was always someone there to help me understand what was going on, and my limited Japanese skills from university did improve a tiny bit. I'll miss them all. Perhaps my life's trend of taking me in unexpected directions will let me meet them again, one day.
Rule Number 5: Learn the language.
Or at least a few basics. I'm a massive fan of languages, and it doesn't feel right to visit another country without any understanding of the language. For my first couple of days in Kyoto, I ended up speaking barely any English, making myself understood in broken Japanese while sightseeing and visiting restaurants an cafes. It was nerve wracking at first, but great fun, and allowed me to meet lots of great people. It was only on my last full day in Kyoto that I actually spoke the most English, which was when I visited Arashiyama with a newfound friend from the week.
For me, learning a new language is like discovering a new song for the first time. You'll hear it once on the radio, but you can't really remember the lyrics or how it goes. Then you hear it a few more times and you can start to hum the tune. Soon you learn the lyrics, and then you know the whole song. At the moment, I can 'sing misheard lyrics' when it comes to Chinese and just 'hum the chorus' for Japanese, but I'm hoping to improve the latter when I begin formal lessons soon. This means I'll be learning two languages simultaneously. I must be mad.
I had such a great time in Kyoto, it was like a dream. The whole thing from start to finish was a crazy amazing experience, from taking part in the competition to winning to actually being in Japan. At the moment, I'm also writing up a post for the Japan Centre's blog about my experience learning how to make sake, which I'll post a link to here later. Writing two separate blogs about the week is allowing me to relive it all, which is especially welcome after a whole week back at work and 'normal life'. Without any hint of hyperbole, it was literally the best week of my life.