Kyoto unhurried

These are excerpts from the book Kyoto Unhurried, by Janice Tay, published by Straits Times Press and based on a fortnightly column on Japanese culture published in The Straits Times from 2007 to 2013. The book is available at leading bookstores for $25.90 inclusive of GST.

24cm above the floor

This is how you make a bowl of tea - you do it with your knees.

Much has been written about the Japanese tea ceremony: its history - influenced by Zen Buddhism, spreading from monks to samurai - and its principles - emphasis on purity, humility and on the changing seasons.

Much less has been said about the knee injuries. Most of the procedures in chado or chanoyu - as the tea ceremony is known - are done with your legs folded under your thighs and the tops of your feet splayed out on the ground. You put your entire weight on this structure, a position called seiza, or "proper sitting".

After 15 minutes of this, with circulation to your feet cut off and pain stabbing into your knees, improper sitting begins to look wildly attractive.

  • Travel tips

    You can experience chado at a number of places in Kyoto.

    At the Kyoto International Community House in the east of the city, free tea gatherings for foreign nationals are held a few times every year. For more information, go to

    To taste the tea and cake served in the tea ceremony without sitting through the ritual, head to the main store of Tsuruya Yoshinobu at the Horikawa- Imadegawa junction.

    The tea salon on the second floor (open from 9.30am to 5.30pm; closed on Wednesdays) has a counter where you can watch a wagashi maker craft traditional Japanese sweets that evoke the season, then have your cake with a bowl of green tea.

Yet after five months of classes in a Kyoto tea room and more than one chance to quit for the sake of my knees, I have signed up for more lessons because when I practise the tea ceremony, I can think of nothing but the tea ceremony.

With chanoyu usually conducted in a traditional Japanese room - a space of tatami floors and fusuma doors - most beginners start by studying how to move in this new environment, relearning the basics of walking, sitting and opening and closing the door. You are, in short, demoted back to toddlerhood.

An almost inconceivable amount of thought has gone into determining how each movement should be carried out. Nothing is too small for choreography. When entering the tea room, you cross the threshold with your right foot; when you leave, the left foot takes the first step out. Failure to plan for this a few steps in advance means that your dignified exit will be marred by a sudden quickstep at the door.

But the difficulty of executing one intensely prescribed motion after another makes you slow down and pay attention to everything that you would otherwise sleepwalk through.

Tea has shown me how distant I have grown from my life. The basic acts needed to keep myself alive - eating, breathing, cleaning and all the other mindless, endless tasks - have become routine, something to be escaped, put off or hurried through.

Familiarity breeds concussion. And so I continue with the tea ceremony because it offers a way back into the ordinary. There are many other paths, of course - calligraphy, martial arts, rock-climbing, meditation. But worthy as they are, chado has one advantage: it comes with a guarantee of tea and cake.

After almost five months of lessons, I thought I knew at least how to open the door. But at the end of one class, Sensei pointed out that my hand was too low when I slid the fusuma aside. "It should be 24cm above the ground," she said.

She must have seen my face and the bubble over my head that said: "Twenty-four centimetres…?", because she added: "Well, it doesn't have to be 24cm exactly but…"

Whether the hand has to be 24.0cm above the floor or 23.4 cm is also acceptable doesn't seem like the point though. It came as a reminder of how fast the unfamiliar can become routine - and overlooked.

And I am reminded once again to take the tea room into all the other rooms I know and, no matter what kind of door is in front of me, to look first for where the hand must go and, measuring out 24cm with the eye, take deliberate hold.

The demon train

On the special Yokai Densha, or Haunted Train, “supernatural beings” mingle with human passengers. The special service
runs between central Kyoto and the scenic Arashiyama suburb in August. PHOTO: JANICE TAY

If things go supernatural, it must be summer.

When the days turned hot and muggy in pre-modern Japan, people would tell each other stories of ghosts and yokai: a catch-all term for demons, monsters and shapeshifting creatures. Being frightened, they believed, had a chilling effect on the body.

This tradition of scaring people to help them cool down has lasted to the present day, with a whole host of supernatural-themed events in summer.

And for five days in August, humans can travel with creatures from the other world on the Yokai Densha, or Haunted Train - a special service that runs between central Kyoto and the scenic Arashiyama suburb on the Randen tram line.

Adults pay 210 yen (S$2.60) for the 20-minute trip. Children can travel for about half of that - 110 yen - but supernatural passengers (defined on the company's website as "anyone who at first glance looks like a yokai") can ride for just 50 yen.

That may explain the strangeness in the ticket queue. I spot demon masks, a fox woman and someone carrying a small skeleton.

  • Travel tips

    Ticket sales for the Haunted Train (Yokai Densha) begin two hours before the train leaves.

    To guarantee a place on a particular run, start queueing at the station even before ticket sales begin.

    Apart from the Randen tram line, the Kyoto subway system is another option when touring the sights.

    Although there are only two lines - the north-south Karasuma and east-west Tozai lines - they can be a faster way to travel than buses.

The boy in front of me is accompanied by his mother, who holds out a plastic case and a tape dispenser. "Where do you want these?" she says. "These" turn out to be home-made paper eyes, coloured inexpertly with crayon. The woman helps him stick the eyes to his hands and back. A staff member at the station is coming down the line. "Ticket sales will begin shortly," she calls. "Passengers intending to travel as yokai, please assume your demon form now."

People in the queue begin slipping on masks; a girl pulls what looks like a tablecloth over her head. The boy in front of me sticks two more paper eyes on himself.

The railway noises in the distance rumble closer. A voice over the PA system announces: "The Haunted Train is approaching. For your safety, please stand behind the yellow line. The Haunted Train is approaching."

The train is scheduled to leave at 7.15 pm but we are allowed to board before then. At 7.07pm, the first child starts to cry. Not because of the ominously dim lighting nor because of the fake hands tossed about by the air-conditioning but because two people dressed as yokai, courtesy of the organisers, have begun working their way through the carriage.

It's hard to remember that they're humans in costume when they thrust their masked faces at yours because their eyes - bulging or sunken in cavities! - and their mouths - black maws filled with a dentist's worst nightmare! - blank everything else out.

The crying has turned into full-throated screaming, aided no doubt by the yokai tendency to home in on the children who seem the most afraid.

The grown-ups are smiling at the terror. Are we bad adults?

Not everyone goes down without a fight. One little girl tries to smack a yokai in the head before burying her face in her mother's neck. The wailing continues all over the carriage, almost drowning out the soundtrack piped in over the PA system.

A distorted voice is chanting something, probably something frightening, but it's hard to hear over the bawling.

Equally heart-stopping are the yokai you don't notice at first. In the dim of the carriage, it takes a while before you see the cat ears, the tiny ogre horns, and the girl with grey lips, dark shadows under her eyes and a pale face that doesn't suggest bleaching creams so much as a freshly dug-up grave. Someone points a camera in her direction: raising her hands in approved horror flick fashion, she lurches forward. Zombie!

Because this is a yokai line, you are trapped in the carriage until the final destination: the Haunted Train doesn't stop at any of the stations in between the first one and the last.

We hurtle through station after station, the commuters on the platforms staring at us, at this train with the window shades pulled down and the carriages filled with a strange blue light. Those with small children hold them up for a better look, and point at us. The confusion, the wonderment on their faces do as much as eerie soundtracks and monster costumes to convince us that we are indeed on a ghost train, an apparition bursting out from the other world to race for an instant over mortal streets - to dazzle, to mystify, to trail a cold finger down the spine - before disappearing once again into the warm summer night.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 17, 2016, with the headline 'Kyoto unhurried'. Print Edition | Subscribe