Travel Stories » ,

A Zen hangover – Kyoto, Japan

When you’re on a binge the whole monk and temple thing just rubs it in.

Hysteria Siberiana: an illness affecting Siberian farmers overwhelmed by the distance of the plains of Siberia, heading off ‘like someone possessed’ for a land west of the sun. The monk finds me on hands and knees throwing-up on consecrated ground.

He stands over me as I retch and gag and heave and dawn explodes, like an obscenity of colour over Kyoto. The next time I am conscious of his presence he is mopping my brow and passing me a bottle of chilled water and a small bowl of Fox Udon noodles. He has cleaned my vomit from the gravestones. For this I am grateful.

The rising sun lazily crests the hill and illuminates the countless Tori of the Fushimi Inari Shrine. The path that I have spent the night running up and down, until my lungs burned and my stomach cramped, folds away into the mist. I sip the water, trying to slowly rehydrate whilst the sun glitters off lacquered gates and novices busy themselves with willow brooms. The monk doesn’t expect an explanation but I feel inclined to talk. I hope he can be my confessor.

I ride the spasm of pain in my stomach and slowly assemble my story into Japanese. Twelve years of travel and I have loved every last second of it; every delay, every piece of lost baggage, every cancelled flight, every ruined relationship and every dingy hotel where I have spent long, lonely nights. I have drunk my way around four continents and I have lived the nomadic dream for so long that it has become the defining characteristic of my life.

I have now just turned thirty. I am battling addictions to Little Blue Pills and vodka. My partner, and mother of my children, hopes that I will spontaneously combust whilst another woman, on another continent, tells me she wants to have my children and my happiness belongs with her, and her alone. I haven’t eaten for days, my addictions and insomnia are so bad that I can no longer control my epilepsy. I live in fear of spiraling out of control. My friends have started to come round and rubber-neck my life. Today, I woke up early today in this beautiful town and decided to run my demons into the ground.

I retch again and It seems that the run didn’t work.

The monk takes a long breath and I wait for some great wisdom or spiritual truth. ‘You need to work on your Japanese,’ is all he says.

Then after a painfully embarrassed silence which I use to wipe vomit from my beard and hair he adds, ‘but the novices and I are going to convene soon for some theological discussion. We are going to debate some of the finer points of our religion. Maybe you should join us.’

I shake my head wearily. ‘I don’t think so. It was mass debating which got me into this mess in the first place.’ My play on words clearly doesn’t translate into Japanese and after another embarrassed silence we exchange bows and I jog briskly back to the hotel.

Much later I am in a bar waiting for friends. I am clean shaven, showered and of a positive frame of mind. I am nursing a Zubrawoska. I know I shouldn’t be mixing this with Little Blue Pills but like all addicts I don’t believe I have a problem. I have been there five minutes when a girl asks if she can join me.

I pass her my business card, tell her my blood type and stare philosophically into my drink.

‘So, what are your hobbies?’ she asks hopefully.

‘Improvised dance, recreational drugs and very casual sex. Any of those of interest?’

She takes the hint, possibly from the tone of my voice rather than my words and beats a hasty retreat to the bar. I swear I hear her mutter the word faggot under her breath. It makes me laugh and I end up snorting my drink. I must remember how fun snorting neat vodka is the next time I am in a black mood.

Finally my friends arrive and they are a picture of happiness. We shake hands, hug, bow, slap backs and order drinks. The bar man opens beer bottles with chopsticks and scurries round with little bowls of pickled squid and miso soup. We laugh and remember the last time we were here. My partner (the one who wants me to spontaneously combust) challenged the bar to a drinking contest and not one single Japanese person was left standing. It was a night of heroic consumption and despite the bad blood that now flows between us we toast her fondly. I raise my glass, mournfully, west of the sun and toss back my drink. It burns my throat and makes my stomach cramp.

No one quite wants to broach the subject of my life imploding. We stick to simple things like the myth of Geisha and the literal translation of the kanji for Kyoto. But beyond this and beyond the haze of a night drinking with people I love I can see in their eyes that they feel my pain and anguish. No words are needed, a fleeting glance and the clink of ice cubes in glasses conveys their understanding: Philip, you nearly had it all. And you just went full steam ahead and ruined it. Congratulations.

None of us can quite manage to get drunk. It feels like a requiem for friendship past. They too know that they are just one woman, one little pill or one last drink away from calamity. It sours the atmosphere somewhat.

But Kyoto is still beautiful. Its achingly pretty. It’s like the beautiful wife you always cheat on but who always takes you back with open arms. It’s a city to fall in love in, a city to walk arm in arm with your lover in, a city of endless possibilities. It has exquisite Tori, streets where Geisha once stepped daintily, silver and gold temples and the Nanzenji stone garden upon which I have styled my garden at home.

By moonlight I wander the town’s countless temples and shrines. At each one I stop, wash my hands and mouth, purify my prurient mind (if that is possible) and then stand in front of the shine head bowed and hands clasped in front of me. After solemnly asking for spiritual guidance I toss a coin into the collection box, clap three times and bow deeply.

Bring me happiness and peace of mind I ask each time.

Deliver me from my demons.

The gods, impressively gaudy, look on stoically and sneer at my prayers. I fear they won’t grant me my wishes.

As the dawn breaks I find myself wandering aimlessly in the precincts of the Higashi Honganji temple. My mouth has the sour vodka and cigarettes taste of a night on the town and my skin itches from not taking Little Blue Pills. I go to pay my respects to the presiding deity of this shrine and offer up limp prayers. After making my offering I bow deeply and shuffle respectfully backwards towards the exit. It’s then that I see the well. The well which provides water to cleanse pilgrims like myself. The well which the deity has shown me.

My hands shake as I tip my bottle of Little Blue Pills down the well. Each one represents a deep and untroubled sleep. It is now, I realise, time to grow up. I pocket the empty pill bottle and then sit down on the shrine steps with my arms wrapped around my knees and watch the sun rise. It’s the first one I have seen undrugged for many months. I had forgotten how beautiful life can be…especially west of the sun.

Philip Blazdell

Philip Blazdell has been travelling since 1989 and would like to stop now, thank you very much.