Delhi to Kyoto; In which I nearly eat off a toilet; Crotch-grabbing customs inspectors; Japan is a country of wonders and enchantment and very rich people; I think Kyoto may be the best place on earth

Our flight on Air India from Delhi to Kansai International Airport was a strange experience. The first half of the trip was very typically Indian - crowded and noisy, with the lights on all night and Hindi videos blasting on the screen. People streamed up and down the aisles constantly all night and the floors and seat-back pockets were overflowing with trash. There was a stop in Hong Kong though, and apparently that’s where all the Indians were going because the plane emptied except for us and half a dozen other people. A whirlwind team of cleaners came through and then the plane filled up again with Japanese on their way home. The contrast was unnerving, used as we were to the cheerful bedlam of India - everyone boarded in dead silence, shuffling down the aisles in orderly lines, stowed their baggage and sat calmly with folded hands. There was no shouting, no shoving, no instant rummaging through giant bags of food. It was all disconcertingly robotic, and the surgical masks they were all wearing did nothing to lessen the weirdness After two days of mishaps, trouble and sickness, we were both at the ends of our reserves and the strangeness of the flight just pushed me over the edge into a staring semi-coma, exhausted and strung out, but with sleep no more than a distant dream. Sheryl was stuffed to the gills with sleeping pills, though, and slept the sleep of the chemically just.

Japan is the best place on earth. At least, that’s how I felt when I disembarked from the plane at Kansai. Everything was clean, quiet, and empty. There were no screaming, jostling hordes, nobody throwing trash or spitting paan juice or sleeping on the floor, and nobody trying to sell me anything. I nearly wept, and I was seconds away from falling to my knees and kissing the runway. I’d happily have eaten off of any flat surface in that airport, toilets included, it seemed that clean after India.

That enchantment lasted even through passport control where they took our temperature and fingerprinted us. Sheryl had succumbed to a long-threatening sinus infection on the plane and we were convinced they’d quarantine us as Swine Flu suspects. All through the flight and in the airport everyone had been staring at us in paralyzed horror: My God, coughing Caucasians! Run for your lives! I think she held her breath all through the admission process.

No sooner had we been admitted to the country than we got pulled over for customs inspection. This always happens to me. I must look like a smuggler. They showed us a lovely picture-menu of contraband and narcotics and pointed… very… deliberately… to each item. Something in my answers or my appearance must have made them suspicious though, and into the Little Side Room we went, where we were shown an expanded version of the menu, which included all kinds of drugs, agricultural produce and exotic animals. The only way to behave during these episodes is with calm patience and good humour, but I couldn’t help but laugh at some of the items in the menu. Socks? I think I might have some of those - please, you’re not going to throw me in jail, are you? Turns out the picture of socks was referring to counterfeit designer merchandise.

Luckily the man and the woman who got stuck inspecting us were a couple of jokers. They didn’t speak much English, but we had a funny conversation. They were comically impressed with our travels and theatrically horrified by the weight of our packs. We had ourselves braced for an hours-long inspection, but when they opened them and were confronted with the three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles inside, compressed to the limits of material science and ready to explode into many times their volume in some kind of backpacking Big Bang if poked wrong, they backed away slowly and carefully with dismayed expressions. After a quick muttered conversation, they contented themselves with emptying the outermost pockets and called it a day.

During all this they gleefully informed us in a mixture of broken English and pantomime that Michael Jackson was dead. The picture of a uniformed and white-gloved Japanese customs officer grabbing his crotch and squealing has to be seen to be believed. And it’s surely a sign of how long I’ve been travelling and how starved I am for news that I was shocked and intrigued by celebrity gossip. Finally, though, our two decided that they’d satisfied the minimum requirements and had had all the entertainment out of us that we could muster after an overnight flight, and we were set free. They were fun people and the nicest customs inspectors I’ve ever met by a long shot, and it wasn’t a bad introduction to Japan. The whole day had slipped by, though, eaten up with the flight delay and the inspection - it was after 4 by then and we still had to get to Kyoto and to our hostel before their 8pm check-in deadline.

A few things were standing in the way of that: We had no money, and we had no idea where the hostel was in Kyoto. I’d stupidly forgotten - again - to write down the directions from the confirmation email. How many times will I have to re-learn that particular lesson, I wonder? These things would have been bigger problems anywhere else, though. The cavernous and sparklingly clean arrivals hall had a tourist information office that filled us in on where to find everything. There were ATMs at one end, coin-operated internet terminals at the other, and green pay-phones everywhere. We found the train station attached to the airport easily, and bought our tickets from a machine. A machine to sell tickets! Brilliant It was here that another difference between Japan and India became evident, though. The fare from the airport to Kyoto, an hour’s travel, was 3000 Japanese Yen - about CAD$35. That was… sickening and horrifying to me, used as I was to cheap Indian train fares. You can travel 3000 kilometres, three days in a sleeper berth all the way across India for less than that. Punch-drunk from the sticker-shock, we dazedly found our way to the platform and discovered one possible factor in the higher prices - when the train pulled into the station all the seats began a complicated automatic ballet, sliding and shifting out, spinning around and fitting themselves back into place, all just to turn the seats around to face forward when the train changed directions. This was the final straw for me, and my battered mental defences collapsed under the sheer commonplace absurdity of it. Nine months in Africa, India and Nepal had left me completely helpless in the face of a country with enough spare money and time to spend on such a thing. Even in Canada, for God’s sake, if the train changed directions the passengers would just, y’know, face backwards. It’s not such a hardship. Giggling pathetically, we boarded the train, feeling like we were sullying its fresh purity with our filthy, disease-ridden bodies and dusty packs.

There’s not much countryside to see between Osaka and Kyoto. It’s completely urbanized - one giant city sprawl. Staring out the train window I saw an endlessly repeating mosaic of the same pieces: Small houses on well-lit streets; vacant lots filled with bright green rice paddies; convenience stores every few blocks on street corners; drainage canals and apartment buildings. Periodically a city centre would rise up in a glittering forest of multicoloured glowing lights and subside again into suburban houses, sidewalks and schools. I could see kids riding their bicycles and climbing on brightly-painted playground equipment, people walking on the empty sidewalks or through yellow-lit windows. A few cars drifted along the streets or waited at traffic lights (traffic lights! I had forgotten such things existed). It all looked immensely calm, peaceful and quiet, orderly and prosperous. Just the sight of it was a balm to my overwrought and jangled nerves.

When we reached Kyoto we transferred to the subway, a slick modern outfit with glass walls between the tracks and the platform. The train doors lined up precisely with the platform doors when the train stopped. I’d been counting stations in the guidebook, but all the signage and announcements were in English as well as Japanese - a welcome surprise, and it was very easy to get where we needed to go despite having to transfer. Another beautiful thing about Japan, we discovered, was that there are escalators everywhere - a real boon to exhausted travellers with heavy packs.

Don’t believe what people say about how there’s no such thing as love at first sight. I was in love with Kyoto long before we reached the hostel. It was dark when we climbed the steps out of the subway, on a warm misty night. We were in the neighbourhood called Gion, the oldest part of the city. It’s was full of narrow lantern-lit alleys and traditional houses in wet, rain-dark wood. It’s the historic haunt of the geishas (here called geiko) and their apprentices, the maiko. It was too late in the evening to see any of them that night, though - we had to wait a few days before we saw one gliding softly along the street like a living doll under a red paper umbrella. Gion is truly beautiful in its quiet way. The traditional houses mingle harmoniously with newer six- and seven-storey buildings with softly glowing, narrow vertical signs, and the river flows by between its green banks on the neighbourhood’s west edge.

It was late, and we were desperate for food. The cheapest place around to eat was a noodle shop where we had bowls of udon. I ordered in Japanese, and I don’t think I embarrassed myself too badly. It was the first time I’d used chopsticks in a year and a half, though, and I had to choose the thick, slippery udon noodles to get back into practice? It came back to me quickly, at least.

Gion is quite an upscale area, though. The noodles were ¥800 each. Twenty dollars! We could eat for a week in India on that! The hostel, too, was very expensive at ¥2,350 for a dorm bed - about $60 for the two of us, when our typical private (albeit filthy and awful) hotel rooms in India were about $7. The India comparisons just wouldn’t stop running through my mind. The air smelled good, there were wide, empty sidewalks with nobody sleeping on them, there was no trash and no stray dogs. At some point, walking the misty Gion streets, I realized that I was still employing all my Indian street-survival tactics - watching every footstep to make sure I didn’t step in something nasty, holding my breath whenever we passed a stream or a gutter, and sneaking past taxi drivers. I hadn’t really realized I was doing it, it had become such second nature to me.

Flourish

2 Comments on this Dispatch:

September 19th, 2009

That made for a refreshing read and reminds me of how long India has to go in its path to progress..

¬ Ganesh
September 24th, 2009

Well, I think the real difference lies in this phrase:

> a country with enough spare money and time

What it really comes down to is that Japan and the average Japanese person just has a hell of a lot more money compared to India and the average Indian person. Japan certainly had its own growing pains on the path to progress - it just happened to have an earlier start, a much smaller population and a much stronger ruling class with a commitment to massive industrialization at any cost. India will get there - and pretty soon, too, from the signs I saw while I was there.

¬ Chris
October 27th, 2009

Hey Chris!!! Wha happem??? You run outta ink??? Almost November….

¬ Bill
October 30th, 2009

Yeah, I suck. :(  I keep thinking I just need a little downtime to catch up, but the writer’s block has a pretty fierce hold at this point.

¬ Chris
Flourish
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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