1. I was back travelling by myself. My new friends and I had gone our separate ways – some back to Tokyo, some to Hiroshima. I’d rearranged my trip so that I would travel through Osaka on the way back to Tokyo, because people had raved about an okonomiyaki place and I was now an okonomiyaki queen. But now was a time for me again. It was a time for Buddhist temples, mountains, trails, cycling, vegetarian food, reading. A dream, right? Almost.
2. I’d broken my back. I mean, I hadn’t, not literally, but something was seriously wrong. I could barely sit or lie down, and when I did, it took me five minutes to get back up. Walking was a disaster. Getting on the wrong train coming out of Nara and having to go back and wait for another one while a storm brewed above me and movement = pain proved too much. I cried on the train platform, thinking: what the hell am I doing. I still don’t quite know what happened to my back/shoulders/neck, but I think it was a mixture of thinking I’d be absolutely fine sleeping on very thin futons for two weeks and hiking with bad posture, not enough water. It would get worse as the day went on, for about five days, and every day was worse than the last. But as soon as I landed back in the UK, it was fine. This to my annoyance: I wanted my mum to see how much pain I was in, as I’d texted her on numerous occasions to be like ‘I’m going to the hospital, cannot take this’. I did go to the hospital, and I cycled my way there like a dingbat. Let me explain.
3. I arrived in Mount Koya by train, cable car, then bus. The bus timetables in the little mountain town of Kōyasan are incredibly regular and incredibly efficient; it’s become a little touristy, but it does mean that it’s easier to get around in a place that would otherwise probably not cater to foreigners. See: lack of language skills. (Related: I got around Japan saying ‘yes’ and ‘thank you very much’ to almost everything, apart from when I had useful new Japanese-speaking friends. I got by!) I was staying in a temple run by Shingon Buddhist monks, who got up every day at 5am to pray and begin their work. We were expected to join them at 6am, and breakfast at 7am. Breakfast was shojin-ryori, vegetarian Buddhist cuisine: no garlic, onions, leek, carrots, potatoes. Lots of pickled things, lots of tofu, miso soup. I hate tofu. I wanted to like it and thought it would be like the olive/red wine/coffee thing – the more you have it, the more you like – but by god, no. My temple was also gorgeous. A lush green courtyard and, in the rain, the smell of pine. It almost felt like I was on a movie set – it seemed so mad that I was in actual Japan, in the actual mountains, staying in an actual temple. I still don’t believe it happened. We were next door to Okunoin – famous for its pilgrimage route, where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, is believed to rest in eternal meditation as he awaits the Buddha of the Future. It was one of the most sacred places in Japan. I took a tour here late at night and felt the weight of my sins – quite literally, as I tried to pick up a rock that's believed to weigh as heavy as your sins, and I could barely even push it.
4. I hired a bike on my first of three days. For some reason I thought cycling would be less painful than walking. Here’s where it gets good: Japan have electric bikes, where you barely press on a pedal and you speed off. This is joyous for hilly use – I cycled around that little mountain town six or eight times that day, taking the inclines like a boss. Apart from when I went too far and headed down, down, down, thinking all the time, this can’t be right, and then thinking, this isn’t right, and having to climb off the dazzling electric speed bike and walk all the way back up (WITH A BAD BACK). This is where it got bad – but not the worst, not yet. I cycled back, despite the fact that my neck had frozen in place and death was calling my name. I got sashimi and a beer and almost cried out in agony when someone tried to talk to me and I had to turn my head. I walked back to my temple and asked a monk, pathetically, where the nearest hospital was. He directed me, not as concerned as I’d have liked him to be, and so off I went. On my bike, back/neck broken, half-crying and half-soaked (it had started raining – thanks, pathetic fallacy). Kōyasan’s hospital is small but fine. I pointed to all the places that hurt and filled in a form in English and sat in a very deserted waiting room. They had to find an English doctor, and the woman that eventually saw me tried very hard to get me to explain what exactly hurt and how. I had to lie down and they had to help me. They pressed my back and I cried again because holy hell, and also I realised I was in a hospital in the mountains on my own. They helped me back up, and she prescribed a powdery medicine and a patch to stick on my back. It didn’t work for the first two days – but the sticky thing was a mild relief. I cycled back, went straight to my room and used the walls to help me to the floor, literally rolling to the centre of the room where my mattress was. I stayed here until it got dark, watched some weird Japanese reality show, and let the rain send me to sleep.
5. On my last day in Kōyasan, I got up for 6am, watched the prayers, ate something gingery for breakfast, then slipped out of my lovely temple onto the bus, cable car, and train to Osaka. This was the hardest day of all; I was close to ending my trip, and my back was still playing up. Dragging my suitcase from different forms of transport to the next was truly a monumental effort, but seeing a new city was my motivation. The thing is, I didn’t explore Osaka as much as I should. I stayed in an awesome hostel (Guesthouse U-En) where I had one of the best curries of my life and got talking to a New Zealander who had recently married a Tokyoite and had a baby. They’d moved to Osaka together and started a new life. It sounded dreamy. My curry was dreamy. I felt bad for wanting to go to bed and never move again, but I was only here for one night. I had to make the most of it. But it just got worse. I had to ask the staff where the nearest doctor was. It was late in the day, so most places were closed. I think I might have begged the receptionist, because he told me he'd keep calling and in the meantime, made a pillow palace in my capsule so I wouldn't have to move much at all. The Japanese, man. I'm telling you. We didn't get through to the doctor in the end, but later that evening I knew I had to leave this bed. I couldn't spend my one night in Osaka crippled. So I got up, and I walked.
7. My last night in Japan was in Tokyo. I met up with my friends from Kyoto and we went to the Robot Restaurant. The Robot Restaurant! The one you see pictures of with the caption ‘In Japan they have a robot restaurant with robot cabaret and it’s mental’. It’s exactly that, but also wildly imaginative. My back was still in disarray, but the pain was easing. I was drinking a lot of the mysterious powdery medicine and sticking things all over my back. It was also impossible not to look around, and for that matter, move my neck, in the Robot Restaurant. It has about six floors, with the ‘show room’ in the basement. You start in the lounge, watch someone dressed up as a spaceman robot (?) play some really epic guitar, then move to the basement and eat popcorn and drink beer. Then basically I can’t tell you exactly what happens next except you’re not allowed to get up once the show starts because the robots may run you over.
8. That last evening in Osaka, I wandered the bright lights of Dotonbori, scouting for an okonomiyaki place. Osaka is a tinier Tokyo. Those same tall buildings and long streets and small alleys, but more navigable. Dotonbori is its beating heart; its colourful centre. It is very easy to fall in love with bright lights. It is very easy to dream about Japan when you're back home, and the food feels stodgier, more fatty, heavier. And not everyone wants to thank you. And the only lights are street lights or the same old cars you see pass your house every day. It's less noisy and crowded. But it's not as fun. I eventually found an okonomiyaki bar, where they didn't speak any English. I paired my pork-shrimp-chicken okonomiyaki with plum wine on ice, and sat in silence at the bar, watching the chefs as they fried one after another.