Words and Photos: Aodhan O’Shea
I first arrived in Kyoto four years ago as a student, sent to discover why, seventy years before me, an obscure German architect named Bruno Taut had fallen in love with the shapes of this city.
Katsurazaka, where I lodged, had little of the romance associated with Kyoto. There was no Geisha, no old wooden-framed houses, no narrow alleyways or charming cafes. A wealthy suburb perched on top of a steep hill; almost every house had been recently fabricated. A variety of styles resembling a showroom display of fitted kitchens rather than a cityscape.
Its residents were all either under the age of ten or over thirty years, and each driveway contained the same combination of European saloon car and Japanese people-carrier. Attractions in the area consisted of a supermarket and dry cleaners.
With the heart of the city distant and buses infrequent it was my bicycle, a rusty Moulton AM5, which gave me my connection to this strange place. It was this bicycle that allowed me to truly discover Kyoto, far more than any other method of transportation.
Every morning I would speed down the hill and sometimes – if out early enough –pass a man storming up the other way on his Keirin bike. This hill would dump me onto Route 9, the arterial highway, which led into the city proper, glowing with promise.
Finding the source of this promise took some time, however. Unable to read neither street signs nor my map, what should have been a simple journey often took me miles in the wrong direction. I strayed into the decayed suburbs which were a counterpoint to the fitted kitchens of Katsurazaka.
These deteriorating places – where the wood had the beautiful patina of age that comes from the humid Japanese weather, oxidising factories here and there, coffee shops from the Sixties that had grown old with their customers – were, to me, magical. I would sneak into weather-beaten apartment blocks clad in rusty corrugated iron, whose paper-thin walls and communal washbasins made me feel as if I was stepping into the world of a Yasujirō Ozu film. None of these experiences would have been possible without the opportunity for getting lost on by my bicycle.
Returning this year, then, I had to take my Moulton with me to relive the pleasures of wandering. This time I chose steep hills to the north of the city, riding from the centre outwards, the shops and cafes gradually falling away into suburbs, which themselves gave way abruptly to forest. Punctuated by the occasional village or builder’s yard.
On these roads, I was alone. There was nothing but the sound of my heartbeat and chain-drive to keep me company as I wound my way up seemingly interminable sequences of hairpin bends, desperately hanging on for the next false flat to recover, hoping for nothing more than managing to reach the top before I keeled over.
At the summit, the beauty of the view down the valley would briefly flicker into my consciousness, but only dimly, as I tried to prepare myself for fast descents down narrow and damp roads; the racing line delicately poised between a concrete ditch on one side and the possibility of going wide into an enormous chromed tanker on the other.
Then there were the tunnels: narrow and poorly lit with walls amplifying the engine of the tiniest car to the dimensions of a monster, there was nothing for it but to sprint through into the light as fast as my legs would take me. But when exhaustion had set in every tunnel mouth was approached with joy: the harbinger of a flat piece of tarmac, the possibility of death a welcome exchange for avoiding another few hundred metres of climbing.
This was the point to head back to the city, either for a cold beer or – far better – hot sake. In a stand bar, small and cramped, metal trays on top of stacked crates serving the duties of a bar, I would pour myself warm alcohol from a battered aluminium pitcher while salary-men studiously ignored the alien cyclist.
And then the best, most relaxing part of the day: the short ride back home with the honest feeling of exhaustion nicely balanced by the cosy fug of sake. To bed, to dream, and to repeat the next day.