On the train from Kansai International Airport to Kyoto, flying past silver water and mountains shrouded in mist; rooftops strung together by clothes lines; convenience stores, bicycle shops, an elderly home bathed in warm light, its residents sitting down to share a meal. 

The sun has set, and the platform at Emmachi station is a tableau against the dark purple sky; figures standing still, in perfect silence.

I wind my way through the streets to the volunteer house. Walk in the direction of the 7-Eleven…Turn right onto Taishi-Michi…Go down the first side street on your left. Addresses mean little in this city.

In the shadows, I feel at ease, filled with a sense of wonder. 

You’re almost at your destination.

The volunteer coordinator, Anna, shows me around the house. She introduces me to my roommate Jenni, from Argentina, who helps me settle in. I unpack quickly (my belongings are few) and fall asleep even faster. 

 

Almost instantly, Kyoto felt like home. A big part of it was the people who I volunteered with. We all lived (for free) in a small traditional house, called a machiya, in a quiet neighbourhood in the north of the city. The program accepted up to ten volunteers at a time, and people came and went on a regular basis, so I had the chance to meet some really lovely individuals (a few of whom are pictured below) from around the world - specifically Israel, Spain, France, Argentina, the Netherlands, Germany, Vietnam, New Zealand and England. 

Mondays were group dinner nights, Thursdays were movie nights, and we often went to karaoke, arcades, and sentos (communal bathhouses) together. For a while I was the youngest volunteer by a decade, but that didn't seem to matter. We found common ground in our curiosity and open minds, spending hours sharing travel stories, learning from one another about our respective cultures, and marvelling over the myriad fascinating (and often confusing) facets of Japan that we felt really lucky to be experiencing firsthand. 

I was pleasantly surprised by the other volunteers. And I was blown away by the kids.