The third morning at Zhao had snow absolutely dumping outside the windows of the hall where we ate breakfast, but powder wasn't on the menu for me that day. I wolfed down my breakfast, said bye to the gang, got my share of hugs, and walked down the snowy streets of Zhao to the bus station. I was on my way to Kyoto.
Bundled up for the winter, the heat of the bus was absolutely killer. It was cranked at least to 28 it felt like. Time passed in a heat-coma, then I was at Yamagata station. There, I hopped on my first shinkansen (bullet train) since the summer (after being gouged an extra 10,000 yen on some bonus-ticket). That took me to Tokyo quite comfortably; I stared outside the window of my seat and watched the snowy fields and mountains of the western coast fade into the dry concrete of Tokyo. I changed trains in Tokyo but this time was seatless, and so stood for the entirety of the two-something hour trip to Kyoto. Time still went by well enough thanks to podcasts from ThisAmericanLife and Planet Money.
I arrived at Kyoto station with a backpacker's pack on my back and white skin. In other words, I was throwing out some pretty strong lost-tourist vibes. A gentlemen came up to me and asked me if I needed help and pointed to his volunteer badge. I told him I lived in Kyoto and had just come home after a trip to Sendai and was quite capable of getting around, thanks.
I've been developing a bad habit of lying to people who accost me in English. I went to an establishment with two Japanese friends a bit before all this vacationing and was greeted with a "SUP BROTHA" from a random Japanese guy sitting at the counter. I stared at him for a moment, trying to think of how best to avoid any real interaction with someone who thinks that's a fun way to greet foreigners. I spouted back in Japanese "Wait, sorry, was that English? Ah, I'm German, and don't actually speak any English..." Of course, I have yet to meet any Germans in Japan who don't actually speak English, but hey.
Whoops, where was I? From Kyoto station I had a bit of a mixup with how I was going to meet up with my host family, the Iwais, but made it there eventually. I got settled in and had a nice break before the new years.
The Iwais have a new exchange student every year, and I ended up spending a lot of my time in Kyoto with Adam, their current one. He and his friend Ian were nice enough to put up with me running around with them.
We ran around a bit when I got a call from Disa, a fellow climber from Sendai who happened to be in Kyoto with her sister for the new years. We all met up at a shop before moving on to ring in the new years at 八坂神社 (yasaka shrine).
The street leading up to the shrine is one of the larger ones in Kyoto, and there's a bridge of a river just before the last section of street that ends in the shrine proper. When we first showed up, things were crowded, but you could still move about.
The ability to move quickly disappeared. Getting forward started to work like congested traffic, where you would notice a lane moving to your left or right and then hop in. As the big guy, I took point leading our train forward until there just wasn't any more moving.
There was no ball that dropped, no clock to stare at. Suddenly, everyone shouted wildly for about five seconds, and then went abruptly back to being the good mannered quiet folk they all were.
People were allowed into the shrine in waves, and we worked our way forward to be in the second group. I just would mumble things at people and point urgently the direction I wanted to go, and they were usually bewildered enough to get out of the way.
Inside the shrine we had a sip of the deliciously sweet new years sake (I still have the saucer from that sitting on my desk) and ran into some of Adam's school mates.
There was also a lot of wandering around hunting for the best snacks at the new year's food stands, pretty much akin to the shacks you'll find outside a football game or carnival. I remember dying while feverishly eating a scrumptious yakiniku, grilled chicken and bell peppers covered with sauce and salt, served up on a stick.