Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Kyoto, Part I


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

When I decided early on that, with my limited time and money, I could visit either Kyoto or Tokyo, I chose Kyoto. For the next three months, I planned my trip intently, researching hotels, tourist attractions, and the cost of transportation.
As the day came closer, I asked the ticket seller at the J.R. station the route and transfers from Ozone station to Kyoto. I went shopping for water bottles, bread, and jello fruit cups. I packed my short, rolling suitcase and charged my camera.

This was first solo trip outside the city since Meijimura. I was nervous.

On Tuesday, May 16, I woke up at 5:00 AM. I got dressed, put my camera in my purse, and rolled my luggage downstairs.

Amazingly, my host mother was already awake. She served me an early breakfast of coffee and sweet bread.

“Itterashai. Ki o tsukete*,” my host mother called out to me as I left.

I walked alone to the station. The street was dim but not completely empty. Someone rode by on a bicycle. An old woman waited at the stop walk.

The Ozone station, surrounded by bakeries, bookstores, and odd shops, seemed quiet. It was too early for anything to be open, for anyone to be shopping. But the J.R. station was open and so was its small information booth. Men in blue uniforms and white gloves were already inside. I explained as best I could that I wanted a ticket—a plain old J.R. ticket**—from Ozone to Kyoto, and one of these men charged me 2500 yen (about $25.00) for a small piece of paper I held onto tightly. I rang the stub through the wicket and ascended the stairs onto the platform.

People stood waiting on the platform. I stood next to the train schedule and watched the clock. I caught the 6:12 train leaving from Ozone, and I rode it to Kanayama, about ten minutes, then transferred.

I had never been on this route before, but it would be okay. I stuck my luggage near my legs and opened up the second volume of Hikaru No Go. Outside, hills, green, green hills textures with ripening trees, glowed faintly in the sunlight.
From Kanayama to Maibara, where I transferred, was a 2-hour ride, and from Maibara to Kyoto station was another hour. When I finally got off, my heart pounded as I came out through the J.R. Gates.

Kyoto station was larger than I thought it’d be. There were several travel agencies on the first floor, but it was only 9:30 and most of them were still closed. Even the Kyoto city tourist office was closed. I found lockers and stowed away my luggage without much trouble. But when I stepped outside, the open, modern city of Kyoto intimidated me. There were skyscrapers all around me, and tourists jammed around large, plastic bus routes, which I could make neither heads nor tails of.
I went back inside. I bought myself hot chocolate and warm sugary dough balls at a nearby café.

Finally it was 10:00 AM, and I ducked into the Kyoto office of tourism for my complimentary map and my 500-yen all day bus pass. Now all that remained was navigating the buses. I decided to go on the “Raku” or “Fun” Bus, which hit most of the major tourist destinations in northeast and southeast Kyoto. A whole herd of high school students, dressed in the typical uniform of high-collar, gold-button jackets or cutesy sailor blouses and skirts, came in with me.

I wanted to see Ginkakuji, the so-called “Silver Pavilion” where a rich nobleman had tried and failed to cover his whole pleasure estate in silver. It’s a popular tourist destination, located in northeast Kyoto. I had heard that Kyoto buses were quick and efficient, and so I’d expected to reach Ginkakuji in fifteen minutes or so. But we just kept going.

The bus turned off the main street and turned back on it, stopping often to load or unload passengers and announcing, in Japanese and English, when we came to a famous tourist destination. I studied my map tensely and stared out the window at the unknown city. The bus kept assuring me Ginkakuji was just a little further away.

Ginkakuji was the last stop. Unfortunately, the bus didn’t take me directly to the Silver Pavilion. Instead, it let us all off—me and the group of school kids—in the middle of the nowhere. A sign said Ginkakuji was only a short walk away. But I didn’t know how to get there.

Fortunately, the school kids did. They walked off and I followed them. A light rain was falling, but I’d left my umbrella in my luggage and was forced to make do with my sweater’s hood. We strolled past souvenir stalls and food and ice cream stands.
Finally, we came to Ginkakuji. It was a working tourist destination. The people there took my money and handed me an English brochure, which I couldn’t yet read, because of the rain.

The Silver Pavilion, for all it’s glorified name, was really just a few beautiful, brown houses with a lined field of sand, a garden, and a small trail leading partially up the mountain. And it was crowded. Those school kids flooded the entryway, so I moved up the trail into the hill, where I could see the temple laid out before me. But more people came, so I kept moving. The trail led down the mountain, around the garden one last time, and, before I knew it, back outside the gates. I had seen all of Ginkakuji in less than a half hour.

A bit disappointed, I wandered back through the stalls of gift sellers, buying postcards and bookmarks. I found the bus stop and went back to Kyoto Station.

It was nearing noon. I was supposed to check in to my hotel at 11:00, but the extended bus ride had delayed me. It was my first reservation, and I was haunted by the fear that, if I missed my check-in time, they might give away my room. I got my luggage and my printed-out directions to my hotel.

I realized I was on the wrong side of Kyoto Station. Unfortunately, there seemed to be no way around the station: buildings blocked me out. Eventually, I found a way in through the station, but it was very confusing: entrances to the Shinkansen blocked my path more than once. And then I got sucked into a narrow, never-ending row, restaurants to the right and left of me, down, down, down, leading to nowhere.

I finally broke outside, hot and flustered. I walked down a street that grew less and less crowded and found my hotel.

The hotel was small and cheap, different from the ryokans I’d stayed at. I went into the lobby, a square room decorated with Meiko*** posters. The desk had a bell and a box filled with keys. The woman at the desk spoke English, and she had not given away my room. I rode the cramped elevator up.

I opened the door to my room. It wasn’t the Inuyama Ryokan. The walls were stained, the room was tiny, and everything was old. The water in the bathroom had been turned off for the day, and the toilet made a strange, ancient groan that lasted long after being flushed. But it had a refrigerator and T.V. and it was, after all, a room: a place to sleep and store my stuff. After entertaining so many thoughts of losing my reservation and having no place to stay, I was relieved. I treated myself to a lunch of sukiyaki at a cheap, clean store nearby.

It was about two when I got back to the bus stop and headed for Kiyomizu-dera, my next tourist destination. The bus, again, let me off in the middle of nowhere, and I, again, followed the other tourists (and signs) through backstreets filled with tourist junk.

Kiyomizu-dera was on a hill. I was beginning to get footsore, but I climbed. A few girls, dressed in geisha outfits, posed near the temple while photographers took pictures of them****. More distressingly, I noticed swells of school kids taking pictures near the architecture.

Kiyomizu-dera is a temple. The front buildings are painted in vermillion and white, while the buildings toward the end are more soberly brown. There are bells and water dragon fountains and small, clay statues dressed in red. But I didn’t really enjoy the temple, because every inch of was packed with tourists. I swayed between them and squeezed my way through the temple.

There was a path outside the temple that led to a Japanese cemetery of tall, thin grave markers, huddled close together. A few, unpopular food stands were near it. I followed the path into a woody area away from the crowds, until I became afraid.
When I left Kiyomizu-dera, I was tired, but I wanted to do at least one more tourist-y thing and make good use of my all-day bus pass. So, I went to Gion.

Gion is the place to go to see a geisha—the only place that foreigners can catch a glimpse of them. Mystique says that Gion should be a beautiful section of Kyoto, ancient tea houses carefully preserved. In reality, it’s rather seedy.

The main, loud, traffic-jammed street ran too close to the shops. I felt vulnerable on the sidewalk, so I kept moving. I went down a back street to look at some art galleries before they closed. But the galleries made me uncomfortable. I couldn’t actually buy anything, so I felt embarrassed to go in. And the street was too narrow, quiet, and empty. It felt like an alley.

All day, I had felt nervous. All day, I felt vulnerable. Kyoto was unfamiliar and I was by myself. I knew know one, spoke to know one, and I was afraid. I didn’t wanting to be standing in a place like an alley: female, foreign, and alone. Suddenly, all I wanted to do was go back to my room, pull the covers over my head, and sleep off this whole miserable experience. I left the back street, crossed the main road, and searched for a bus stop.

The shrine’s torii was the same, bright orange as the torii in Miyajima. I stumbled across it as I tried to find a bus. I think it was the familiarity of the torii that drew me in. I wanted to be near something I knew. So, one last time, I pushed aside my fear and entered the shrine.

The Gion shrine had bells and stone lions. It wasn’t exceptional and it wasn’t particularly comforting. I walked further in to flat area that said “Permanent Refugee Area.” I puzzled at that.

Then, the landscape shifted, and I was in a park.

Fresh, purple irises clumped together at the edge of pond. While odd, interesting stones poked from the water, a white duck swam. On the other side of the pond, I could see lush, leafy trees and verdant hills. Two Japanese women dressed in bright kimonos crossed a stone bridge.

And yet those details cannot describe the beauty of the scene unfolded before me, or the serenity I felt upon looking at it. After all my anxiety, the feeling pressed within me all the stronger. I felt refreshed.

I explored the park and found soft-shelled turtles, small waterfalls and stepping stones, pink flowers and moss-covered stone lanterns. I found a tree bent back like a bow and a huge weeping willow tree. I found statues of proud samurai whose names I could not read. And I felt happy.

Eventually, I went back to Kyoto Station. I ate tonkatsu***** in a bright restaurant, where a friendly woman said to me, “irasshaimase, dozo.******” I had a blue ice cream snow cone for desert. Then I returned to my hotel, snuggled into my futon, and fell asleep before 10:00.

*“Goodbye. Be careful,” loosely translated. “Itterashai” is actually the customary phrase used when someone is leaving the house. The person leaving says “ittekimasu.”

**As opposed to a more expensive shinkansen—bullet train—ticket.

***Meiko are the apprentices of Geisha. The only place you can find a Geisha today is in a small section of Kyoto called Gion, which I’ll get to later.

****This is a tourist service offered to girls: pay them a certain amount of money to dress up and walk around the most famous areas of Kyoto, feeling like a glamorous geisha of old times. Well, sort of.

*****Breaded, fried pork

******“Welcome. Please [come in].”


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