Kyoto – Part 1

Today we paid an enormous amount of money to personally show a real Japanese man how badly behaved two Australian children can be.

In hindsight, this is a funny story. But at the time, not so much. On this morning, the kids unequivocally woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Which, given they are swapping beds each night, is not that hard to rationalise. This is an amicable arrangement, or as amicable as you can get in a bargain between a headstrong three year old, and a strong-headed five year old.

I thought I was good at bargaining for leather goods in Bali twenty years ago. This is a whole other level.

The bartering, bargaining and deal making begins at breakfast, and is refined to the point of counting out corn flakes. Each round of bickering leads to each side not listening to the other, and talking over each other at increasing volumes. Eventually someone will complain to the adjudicator, nominated at the time, and an decision handed down.

If it sounds increasingly like the Australian political system, it is only slightly more mature.

Having made many big decisions over toast, cereal and drink selections, we went upstairs, grabbed our things, and headed down to the lobby for a bus tour of Kyoto. At the desk was a man wearing a flannelette shirt, holding a sign, “Dr Mark Nevershoot”.

That’s me.

“Hello, I am Hideki,” he said, smiling clumsily. He beckoned us over to a table, where Suse and I sat, and the children attempted to fall into the decorative pond. In the background, as Hideki began, it was question time in the House of Representatives.

Hideki spread out a large map, pointing theatrically. “Today, we will walk to Shijo train station, and then catch a train to Marutamachi station. From here, we will walk to the Kyoto Imperial palace, and then catch a bus to Keniji temple, and then walk to…”

I looked at Asher, already pulling at Suse’s hands like it was an amusement ride, and Harper’s voice was beginning to whine. Hideki bravely pushed on. “…Kaburenjo theatre to the Gion district to see Geiko, and then a further bus to the Heian-jingu shrine. Finally, we will catch a train back to here.” The Speaker turned to the rowdy House, warning to eject a member. They quietened down, leaving a silence. Suse and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised. Suse was the first to recover.

“This is not a bus tour, then?” she asked.

“Ah, no.”

Suse turned to me. “Do you want to grab the stroller?”

“Sure,” I said.

* * * * *

Suse had done a lot of research for this trip away, the first time we’ve taken a three- and five-year-old overseas. We know the undulating moods of our two kids intimately, and that if Asher closes up shop, she can drop to the ground and refuse to move. At home, the answer to this would be a time out, or a patient conversation, or a threat of consequence, or to just push on through and carry her as a dead weight.

None of these options is perfect when you are at the Kaburenjo theatre in the Gion district surrounded by Geisha.

So, with brilliant foresight, Suse bought a fold up stroller in preparation. Fifty bucks on eBay. It had already paid for itself by the end of our eighteen-hour transit from home, as a perfect way to keep the kids moving and avoid drop tantrums.

I ran upstairs, and grabbed the pram. By the time I got back, I found Suse bent down, using her firm voice, with an uncomfortable tour guide standing off to the side.

Great start.

* * * * *

Hideki was a lovely man, who was awkward by nature.   He told us within minutes that he had two children of his own, but he seemed entirely unsure how to interact with these strange beings. As our two children began arguing over who was going to sit in the pram first, he tried bravely to show them photos of his own kids. And credit to him for his distraction technique, except that his temerity meant that they dismissed him out of hand, and he seemed relieved to retreat from this role. At that point a silent pact was made between Suse, myself and Hideki that we would pretend that none of this was actually happening.

We began walking up the street, each child whining and bargaining for the stroller every hundred metres. Luckily, the train station was only 400 metres up the road, so there were only four pit stops. They then tried to bargain over being carried down the stairs. Both quickly realised – on gauging our expressions – that this was not up for negotiation.

Train ride from Shito to Marutamachi station. Many adoring older women, forgiving the behaviour from two western girls with blue eyes. We alighted, where the bargaining for the stroller continued, and we made our way to Sakaimachichi gate and the pond beyond. Hideki pulled out some chocolate bread out to feed the carp. He handed one piece to each child.

Harper through her whole loaf in the water.

Asher started eating hers.


* * * * *

The weather was oppressive, which is unsurprising, given it was a hundred degrees in the shade, and the humidity clocked in a 129% while the rain somehow managed to hold off. Sweat sat in your pores without evaporating given the lack of breeze. And then we discovered the path ahead was gravel.

“I don’t think the pram will work.”

“I’m pretty sure it will, Hideki.”

I drove a new path through the Kyoto Imperial Palace gravel, like a winged keel through mud. We swerved our way out, finally on asphalt, and then onto the public bus. Again, our children swung around like monkeys, on decreasing occasions being labelled “kawaii” (cute), but appearing as anything other than this to their embarrassed parents.

We got off and visited the Kaburenjo theatre. The western term Geisha is not used in Kyoto; there are Maiko, or trainee Geishas, who complete training over a five year period from the age of 15 to 20. Once graduated, they are known as Geiko. Geiko continue to be trained to this day, in five separate schools in Kyoto, and number around two hundred in total. Or that is my understanding, given I spent the majority of the time entertaining Asher, now increasingly unwilling to stay in one spot.

This eventually worked in our favour, as we moved through Gion, into a café, and bribed our children some more.

“And now we get back on the bus,” Hideki said, stuttering slightly, and unable to look any of us in the eyes.


* * * * *

The rain had finally broken, a torrential downpour all around.

We stood there, in the only sheltered part of the Heian Shrine, its open court yard four soccer fields of gravel in front of us.

“If you don’t respect the shrine, it will punch you,” Hideki said, the first interaction he had attempted with the children since the very beginning.

“Shrines can’t punch you,” Harper said, and the girls dissolved into laughter. It was a laugh that made both of us smile despite ourselves.

“We won’t ever see any of these people again,” Suse said to me, at the exact moment that Asher and Harper began sliding down the stairs to the shrine like it was a piece of play equipment.

I walked over to them. “If you don’t stop that right now, I’ll give you a time out.“

Harper stopped.

Asher didn’t.

“There is no where for a time out here,” she said, daring. And then she giggled.

There is a story from my childhood about my own mother injuring her shoulder when she tried to strike the knees of one of the three boys in the back of our car, on a trip to Tasmania, for giggling. I never understood the crime of giggling.

As a parent I now most certainly do.

I picked her up under her arms, and began marching her through pouring rain, looking frantically for a corner. She’d totally scoped the joint. There was nowhere suitable within sight. But when you are that angry, marching 400 metres holding a dead weight in front of you is less difficult than when you are happy. I finally spotted a tree, with some shelter. I headed over and I plonked her down.

“Stand here and look at the tree.”

“That’s not how time out works.” She looked up, and saw my eyes. She quickly turned and looked at the tree.

I backed back, standing five metres away. A minute passed. “All right, you can come out now,” I said, walking back as I did. Fifty metres up the gravel, I turned, to find her still standing there.

“Asher, you can come out now,” I repeated.

Her body turned, and she looked across, initially confused.

And then a huge smile slipped across her lips, sense of self utterly unbruised, and she galloped towards me – jumping in a puddle as she did.

* * * * *

Following this moment, fractious children and their fractious parents transmerged into that silly, slightly giggly state that everyone does when they stop caring quite so much about anything. The rain was now torrential, and we were all utterly sodden. Our guide knew we were bad parents by now, so it didn’t matter so much. We had caught two trains, three buses, been to multiple UNESCO world heritage sites and not set fire to any of them. And most importantly, the tour was almost over.

We were on the home stretch. Hideki frogmarched us two more kilometres in this deluge, finally making it to the subway stop. I carried the pram downstairs under one arm, holding Harper’s hand with the other. As we got to the bottom of the stairs, the train travelling in the opposite direction pulled up. I placed the pram down, and its front wheel sat sideways, causing the pram to jacknife left before moving straight.

With that, this small movement caught the foot of an elderly lady. I felt her ankle against the pram, lifting it slightly, and then I saw her land on outstretched hands, flat on the marble floor, a sickening thud of meat slapping on the ground. Before we knew it, she was already up, and scuttering into the train, the doors closing behind. She limped to a seat, people on the train standing to tend to her.

“Shazai, shazai, shazai,” I said, to the closed doors of the train, as it took off, with Japanese precision, leaving us standing there, aghast, and completely unaware if she was okay.

“What happened?” Suse asked.

“The pram jack-knifed out, and caught her leg.”

“And she just fell?”

“Flat on her face.”

“Is she okay?”

“I don’t know.”

“It was a big fall.”

“I know.”

“She wasn’t young.”

“I know!”

“I feel terrible.”

“You feel terrible? I’m the one that tripped her! And I couldn’t speak to her to help her, and…”

We just stood there, wind from our sails, both utterly mortified.

I looked across, at Hideki and the children. For the first time today, he was engaging with them, and they were engaging back. They were smilng as he was offering them something. Our head hanging low, we walked across to see what trick he was using to finally get them on side.

Five hours into our trip, he was offering them two half-melted bottles of water that he had been carrying around all day. They looked at him, puzzled. Both girls had been eating and drinking all day long – as bribery for their locomotion – and he was offering frozen water to two sodden children. Ice to the proverbial Eskimos.

Hideki opened the first bottle, and it spilled everywhere, all over the marble floor; yet another tripping hazard, from this Australian trail of destruction.

And the girls jumped up and down, making the puddles muddy once more.

* * * * *


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