The Kyoto Protocol (Not Literally)
Hendricks and I left Tokyo on a Friday before noon, hopped on a shinkansen, and, with a few brief stops in places like Yokohama and Shizuoka, zoomed down 288 miles of track to Kyoto in exactly 158 minutes- the timing is that precise. As I’ve said in previous posts, it’s a very rare sight for a train to arrive even one minute off schedule in Japan.
With two large roller suitcases and no concept of how distant the train station was from our hotel, though it looked to be close, we hailed a taxi to be driven to Sakura Terrace Hotel. About 30 seconds later, our taxi driver began unloading our luggage, laughing at the obtuse foreigners who could have easily walked the two blocks to their hotel. Stepping one foot off the curb and raising a palm over my brow to reduce solar interference from my line of sight, I looked down the street to see the massive Kyoto JR Station complex that was completely visible from where I stood. We also noticed a metro stop about 10 feet from the hotel entrance, one which with certitude connected to the very JR Station from which we had just arrived. We ceded to our driver the minimum ¥650 plus an extra ¥350 in idiot tax, noting the convenience of a two minute walk to the train station for future reference.
Upon checking in, we conversed with a friendly San Franciscan who had traveled unaccompanied to Japan for ten days. We exchanged stories of our travels thus far, and learned that Andy, the San Franciscan, had plans to meet up with a traveler he had met previously in Hiroshima to go to the famed Bamboo Grove in Arashiyama, about a 20 minute train ride from our hotel. He invited us to join him, and 15 minutes later the three of us walked the two blocks to the JR Station to meet up with Gidi from Israel and head to the Bamboo Grove.
We headed back to the train station in Arashiyama near 17:30, and it had not occurred to me that rush hour traffic could be heavy from such a small town. I had heard the stories of packed trains, and I had even experienced a few trains that were somewhat full in Tokyo, but little did I know that my chance to live through the magic of chest-to-back-to-elbow-to-knee-to-somehow-ankle sardine can tight train patronage was about to occur.
We boarded the train, and it was full, but not uncomfortably so. We had twelve stops more to go before reaching the city center. About two stops later, a group of teenage basketball players boarded, staring at the only white people they’d probably seen that day, or maybe in a while, doing their best to communicate English aphorisms to us that they’d likely learned in school. If you’ll remember from history class, Japan underwent a period of isolation from 1633 to 1853, self-identifying as a ‘sakoku,’ or ‘chained country.’ Under this foreign relations policy, ingress and egress to and from the country was restricted, enforced under penalty of death. Basically, Japan is not quite the proverbial melting pot that the US is, and we non-Japanese stand out like Waldo on a blank page.
Now, in Japan, there’s not really a maximum capacity regulation for train cars. When the attendants notice that a car is too full for people waiting to board, they just sort of start pushing the people inside, making room for everyone else. I’ve never been so intimate with complete strangers, but everyone was in the same boat… or, in this case, train. So, I just sort of went with it, trying not to sweat on the people pressed against me in their nice business attire. I glanced over at the teenage boys I had noticed earlier, one of whom was backed into a corner, another of whom was bent over a rail, all the while staring at us, chortling, and shouting in English, “Japanese culture!”
Hungry from our trek, the four of us discussed finding a place to get dinner. Not content with simply happening upon a corner restaurant for my first night in Kyoto, I suggested we travel to Pontocho Alley, which seemed an auspicious place to have a night out with new friends.
Exiting either Sanjo Station (to the north) or Gion-Shijo Station (to the south) on the Keihan Line, it’s a short walk to Pontocho Alley and the area surrounding. The area is bustling in the evening, with tourists and locals alike stopping between bars and restaurants, some displaying signs marked ‘No Foreigners,’ which probably should have made me feel a bit slighted, and then I remembered how much my fellow countrymen caaaaannnnnn kind of be less than pleasant to be around sometimes, with myself likely included. Yeah, I get it.
Pontocho Alley is this long, narrow corridor nestled betwixt buildings interpolating the Kamo River to the east and the Takase River to the west. Authentic geiko (the word in Kyoto dialect for ‘geisha’) can be spotted on their way to appointments. I have to say, Arthur Golden, you probably should have named your novel Memoirs of a Geiko since the novel is set in Kyoto. It’s not like you have a M.A. in Japanese history from Columbia University or anything. OHHHHH I called you OUT! A likely rebuttal would be, “But, DGD, westerners are not familiar with the term ‘geiko,’ which would render my title a useless device in alerting readers to the role of the protagonist, thus hindering book sales.” And, I would reply, “But, you’re still not right.” And, he would just be all like, “Money.” And I would nod because THAT argument is apodictic.
It was a fairly hot and humid spring day; nevertheless, there was a lot of exploring to be done. Higashiyama has many temples and shrines throughout. Of all the sights to see in Higashiyama, I wanted to visit Gion Corner, the most renowned geisha district in all of Japan, most. Not realizing that Higashiyama Station, where we exited, was much much farther from Gion Corner than Gion-Shijo Station, where we should have exited, we traversed the streets in the hot sun, winded as sails, sweating like cornered Zenshin-ni.
Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theatre
After finding the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theatre at Gion Corner, I blitzed to the crowded box office to purchase two tickets to see Miyako Odori (‘Dances of the Old Capital’) performed by genuine geiko and maiko (apprentice geiko). Performances only run during the month of April each year, so as would be expected, the place was awash with tourists from the world over.
I’m a bit of a niggard at times, saving when I can, but having bought second class tickets at ¥2000/person, I would definitely purchase the more expensive first class ticket next time ’round at ¥4000/person. The even more expensive special class ticket at ¥4500 gets you a tea ceremony before the show, which I presume would be much nicer than standing in line (especially on a hot day) waiting for the doors to be opened. Both the special and first class ticket will get you an actual seat on the first and second tiers, respectively, rather than a balcony seat on the floor. Sitting criss-cross apple sauce on tatami mats for 40 minutes isn’t the most comfortable way to spectate, but I didn’t mind.
Though discerning the story line proved to be difficult for a non-Japanese speaker, the visuals and sounds were completely immersive. Geiko were seated on the wings of a U-shaped stage extending along the sides of the audience, singing and playing shamisen, which are these three-stringed little banjo looking instruments that have a tonality familiar to you if you’ve ever been on Samurai Summit at Six Flags Magic Mountain. Meanwhile, dancers enter the stage, using their kimonos and various props, dancing in and out of formations, to make these really intricate visuals. A story I couldn’t begin to understand takes place between a couple of female characters and actresses in drag personifying men. Every set is stunning. I genuinely recommend seeing Miyako Odori for a slice of authentic Japanese culture.
Ginkaku-ji (‘Temple of the Silver Pavilion’)/Jishō-ji
Hendricks’ great aunt Hideko told us she prefers Ginkaku-ji to Kinkaku-ji (‘Temple of the Golden Pavilion’). So, though we missed out on visiting Kinkaku-ji during our short three day trip to Kyoto, I didn’t feel too bad; although, seeing a gold-leaf plated building is not something you see every day. Paraphrasing what I remember about the two places, Kinkaku-ji was a retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and Ginkaku-ji was a retirement villa built by his grandson, shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, modeled after Kinkaku-ji. Your grandfather went with gold, and you’re going to go with silver? Why not platinum? Then challenge your progeny to one-up you with rhodium. Just a thought.
Mount Kurama (Kuramayama)
There are many highlights from visiting Japan, and it’s truly difficult to select just one event as a favorite. Hiking Mount Kurama ranks right up there, though, behind being proposed to and meeting Hendricks’ relatives. Firstly, there’s this cable train down at the base of the mountain, and you take the Eizan Line all the way up through a picturesque wilderness. B, upon exiting the rail car at its terminus, this quaint village amongst the trees greets you smilingly, but is also inhabited by an ominous tengu portending your likely inability to reach the summit . Tertiary, the incredible shrines and temples built up the mountainside can only be seen by those willing and able to make the trek by foot, so there’s a sense of exclusivity to the experience, a sort of VIP club for able-bodied adventurers. And, yes, my method of ordination in that description was varied. Just checking to see if anyone noticed.
Deciding to stick with the familiar, we hiked back down the mountain the way we came. In our second encounter with Honden’s plaza, we were fortunate to find not a soul in sight. It was just Hendricks and me, two alone on the most beautiful place on the mountain (see below 360 degree video).
Finishing our journey down to the bottom of Kuramayama, we noticed a woman descending the slope in heels. Due to my lack of dexterity when exceeding the height of 5’7″ (that’s my height plus about 2 inches), I tried my best to ask her in Japanese whether she found it difficult to walk down the mountain in her shoes. She responded in English, and soon realizing she was completely fluent in the language, we continued in conversation until reaching the Eizan Line. Her name was Tomoko, from Osaka, and she spoke candidly about having lived in rural California for a time, wishing to someday return. She asked about our travels thus far and described what it meant to her spiritually visiting Kuramayama, something she does as often as possible.
As we began to part ways, she questioned how we would be returning to the city center of Kyoto, offering us a ride in her car back to our hotel. We accepted her generous offer, and she drove us the 9 miles back, sparing us from the transfers we would have had to make between rail stations, sharing details about the city we would have been lucky to hear from a tour guide, recommending we try okonomiyaki when we reach her hometown in the next leg of our journey. She spoke about her sister who runs a photography studio, and how she sometimes helps, having her sister take photos of her dressed as a geisha from time to time for fun, photos over which she and her friends laugh because of her age. She described her late husband and how his passing was difficult for her because he was the love of her life, her anecdote so heartfelt it nearly brought tears to my eyes. I will be forever grateful for the altruism and ingenuousness of a stranger, remembering her fondly when I think back on that day.
Kyoto, you’re kind of great.
Have you ever met a kind stranger who helped you out in your travels… someone you will always remember? Let me know about it in the comments!by