Kyoto; In which we are colonized by all manner of bacteria; Temples and shrines; Coming to terms with Japan and its many unwritten rules

I swear that someday I’m going to come back and live in Kyoto. It’s a beautiful place, and one of the most liveable, walkable cities I’ve ever seen. I don’t know why it is, that some cities feel like home and some don’t. Most cities are characterless and forgettable. Some others are ugly human sewers that you can’t wait to leave, like Jaipur or Nairobi. And some cities are just so overwhelmingly themselves that all you can do is throw yourself beneath them and hope they leave enough of you left that you remember who you are. Paris is like that, and Marrakesh.

But Kyoto felt like home instantly, in a way that Valencia and Galway City did, and in a way that Cape Town or Mumbai never could. It’s a dense city, without being crowded, and it has lots of urban green space. Moss-covered temples and shrines are everywhere, and the river runs north to south with a walking and cycling path on both sides, its marshy shallows home to herons and egrets. It seems like a nice spot to put down the packs and just live for awhile. I was powerfully tempted to do just that - enough to start looking at apartment listings, in fact - but in the end the urge to be on the road was still too strong.

Part of the nesting instinct might have been because we were as sick as dogs the first three days we were there. We scarcely left the hostel all that time, while our bodies purged themselves and recovered from whatever the subcontinent had done to them. Hell, we didn’t really leave our beds the first day. Between jet-lag and needing to sprint to the toilet every few minutes, I didn’t make any friends in the men’s dorm that first night, I can tell you. All we really did during those three days was to go back and forth to what passed for a supermarket - an expensive little place about ten minutes walk away.

And when I say something was expensive in Japan, you can imagine what I mean. Considering, Japan isn’t that costly for most things. It’s comparable to the more expensive European countries. Prices are generally 10 to 25% higher than at home. Food is the one big exception. Groceries are horrifically expensive in Japan, especially fresh produce. Prices were in the neighbourhood of ¥150 (about CAD$1.80) for four potatoes, three carrots or a head of lettuce. Every individual fruit or vegetable was flawless and aesthetically perfect and presented in tastefully elegant packaging. They’re a joy to behold, but I’d have preferred lumpy, bruised vegetables for a lower price. That’s utterly unthinkable, though, and runs directly counter to the entire Japanese worldview and way of life. The only thing that was cheaper than it was at home was Pocky, and I ate a lot of it. I love my chocolate-covered pretzel sticks dearly and I hadn’t had them for a very long time. Later we visited Nishiki Market, which is supposed to be a food paradise. I thought that might be the right place to find a cheap lunch at least, but in retrospect that’s laughable - we’re in Japan, each stall was an elegant boutique of tastefully-displayed perfection. I did get Sheryl to try takoyaki (octopus puffs - in this case with a little bit of octopus and a lot of puff) and she liked them well enough.

The first three days were stolen by the bacteria and parasites colonizing our guts, and we were weak and pathetic for a long time afterward. It wasn’t until the fourth day that we managed to see any of Kyoto, but the Chion-In Buddhist temple was a very good place to start. The temple grounds are huge, ornamented with calm, green mossy traditional gardens. Little stone lanterns and statues were scattered everywhere and small bridges arched over ponds filled with koi and water-lilies. It’s so easy to see why the Art Nouveau movement was so dramatically impacted by the distinctive Japanese design and aesthetics. The temple buildings were huge and the inner shrines, though fantastically decorated with gold and lacquer, were still elegantly ornate. We spent twenty minutes sitting in seiza (the traditional formal seated posture) listening to a monk chanting. Seiza is an extraordinarily difficult sitting position - imagine kneeling and then sitting back on your heels - and it’s said that many modern Japanese have trouble with it. Sheryl couldn’t feel her legs after two minutes. I didn’t have much of a problem at first - maybe the cycling-built leg muscles helped - but it did get painful toward the end, and standing up again brought on the pins-and-needles.

The hostel where we were staying had free bikes, and we took them out the first day we felt recovered enough to ride them. Kyoto is a very easy cycle. It’s flat, the roads are wide and the traffic is sane and predictable. The only drawback is that there’s really nowhere to lock bicycles. There aren’t any lock posts or rings, and judging from the threatening posters on the lamp-posts the municipal government makes a rapacious income from the fines it levies when you have to go and collect your bike from the pound if you park in an “unauthorized area” (read: virtually anywhere).

We rode toward the south of the city to the Kiyomizu temple, one of Kyoto’s most famous sights. Most famous also means “most heavily touristed” and as we toiled up the hill the crowds of school groups got thicker and thicker. The temple itself was impressive, with a painted and carved archway and a bronze dragon spewing water into a trough for the ceremonial hand-washing. That was all we saw of the place, though. The admission price was high, and between the expense and the wall-to-wall kids we decided not to bother. Japanese school kids are probably the best-behaved creatures on the planet but there were still a lot of them.

In contrast, the Fushimi shrine, half an hour’s ride farther south, was a tranquil place under the green and shadowy canopy of ancient cypress trees. The site is dedicated to Inari, the deity of prosperity in the Japanese Shinto pantheon. Thousands of bright red lacquered ceremonial gateways (called torii) form tunnels that snake up and around the hill in dim and confusing labyrinths. Tiny shrines lay hidden in obscure recesses here and there, and countless fox statues watched us shifty and slit-eyed from every direction. Foxes are sneaky trickster spirits in Japanese folklore, but those associated with Inari are considered benign messengers. The gloom and the foxes should have made it spooky, but there was an atmosphere of peace that made the silence and the stillness calming rather than eerie. I’m not saying I’d want to be there on a stormy night, mind you. We nearly were - we spent so much time there that when we’d finally reached the top of the hill the light was fading and heavy weather was blowing in. The wind had picked up and gusts of dead leaves and splatters of rain swirled around us as we slipped and slid down the old, treacherously mossy stone steps to the bottom.

Our time in Kyoto had slipped away from us, eaten up by bacteria and fatigue. With some surprise we realized that we’d been there a week and it was time to go. The hostel helped us to arrange bus tickets to Tokyo. Our lack of planning caused quite the ordeal for them, calling around to all the companies to check the price and availability. We’re not used to making reservations for buses and we’d prefer to take the train. We actually ended up with the highway-bus arm of the Japan Rail transport company, ironically enough. The horrifying price tag was ¥5000 each - about CAD$54. You can travel all the way across India in an upper-class semi-private air-conditioned compartment for that kind of money, but it was the cheapest way we could find to get to Tokyo short of walking. The fare could have been as low as ¥3500 if we’d gone on a Wednesday rather than a Saturday, but at least the sleeper bus saved us a night’s accommodation, and it’s still better than the ¥15,000 fare on the bullet-train.

Later, we rode the bikes downtown all along the river to the train station to ransom the tickets and fell in love with Kyoto all over again. The downtown was so clean and softly glowing with bright neon colours. Kyoto Tower was reflected against sunset clouds in the glass wall of the train station when we arrived. Kyoto Station is a gigantic futurist spun-metal cocoon laced with escalators and catwalks. You can look fifteen stories down from the roof garden into the central well. By the time we had the tickets the sky was dark, and we took a long, slow ride through the warm, scented night air back to Gion.

Our last day in Kyoto we spent riding out to the western suburb of Arashiyama. It was a long ride for the distance - 8 or 10 kilometres took more than two hours, what with all the traffic lights. Arashiyama is a very touristy area, but it was well worth the ride. There’s a long, meandering path through a bamboo forest, where the light is filtered deep green and the bamboo towers densely overhead, leaning in on either side to close in the middle, making an arched tunnel through the grove. The ground was carpeted with the slender leaves, dried to a light tan. It looked soft and rustly and I’d have liked to walk through them between the trunks. The wind made a soft hissing noise through the leaves high above.

In a residential neighbourhood a few kilometres south of Arashiyama, we stopped for lunch at a little corner supermarket on our way to see a couple of temples. There were only a couple of places to eat nearby. One was a big concrete-walled tree on the corner with a shrine beside it. Eating in front of the shrine seemed disrespectful to us, so we sat behind a scooter in the supermarket’s little parking strip. We hadn’t yet discovered that in Japan, it’s more or less rude to eat informally in public anywhere at all. The friendly crossing guard didn’t seem to mind, but a bossy old lady came walking by and scolded us for sitting there, pantomiming that we were somehow stopping traffic from parking. It occurred to me later that she might have thought it was our scooter. She bullied us across the street and made us sit down on the concrete wall around the tree - but on the other side of the trunk from the shrine. Like all bossy old ladies, she was happy once we were doing exactly as we were told. We ate and left as quickly as we could.

We were in the neighbourhood to see the Moss Temple, Saihoji. We knew we wouldn’t be admitted, not having made a written application two weeks before, but we wanted to see it from the outside, at least. We found it without trouble. It was lovely - set in what I can only describe as a moss garden. The moss had taken over the ground, the trees, and all the buildings. Even the stone lanterns were overgrown with soft, deep, green mosses.

It was definitely closed to the likes of us, though, and so we went on to try and find Jizou-in, the Bamboo Temple, instead, which our guidebook had described as a “poor man’s Moss Temple”. I couldn’t really argue with our classification, but we couldn’t find the temple for love or money. The map in our book was useless. The map at the bus stand was useless. We went up and down the streets looking for signs with the right characters in the right order, and found a big fat nothing. Sheryl finally asked a young couple walking their dog. They didn’t know where the temple was either, but an old man overheard us talking and wordlessly gestured us to follow him. He led us through a maze of little suburban streets and alleys, never making a sound, and left us at the front entrance to the temple. We’d never have found it ourselves.

Jizou-in is a beautiful shrine. Everything is silent and green, nestled in a bamboo forest and built around a small moss garden. Sheryl fell in love with the place. We sat and watched the garden for awhile, losing track of time in the green stillness. It looked so soft and inviting. When we finally stood up to look around at the other buildings of the shrine, an old monk shooed us out the back door before we knew what had happened. We couldn’t quite understand until, circling around to the front to retrieve the bikes, we saw that the main entrance was tightly shut - we’d taken too long and they’d closed up for the day.

The long ride back to the hostel was miserable. It started raining hard just as we left the Bamboo Temple and we were soon soaked to the skin. The wind was chilly and every car and bus that passed threw up a great sheet of spray at us. It seemed to take forever to get back downtown and was no fun at all. Still, I even like Kyoto from a bike in the rain, and that’s saying something.

We killed the last couple of hours before the bus at the station, hanging around doing nothing. Of course the concept of bus has come to mean rattletrap death machine to me now, and that’s what I was expecting without realizing it. When it came, though, it was a slick, new, double-decker highway bus with seats that reclined nearly flat. Of course I’m used to the rugby-scrum style of boarding a bus these days, and muscled the bags over to the luggage compartment. I got told off in Japanese to wait my turn and bring the bags around in front of the railing like everybody else, ignorant barbarian. There are so many, many rules here in Japan. There were signs on the back of every seat in English and Japanese asking people not to speak or talk on the phone or open the window curtains. Used to the cheerful chatter of India, I found the sepulchral silence a bit disturbing. I lay back in my seat and listened to the road, thinking I’d never fall asleep, and woke up, blinking, in the false dawn in Tokyo.


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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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