Tuesday, February 1: I think I have 5 days in Kyoto. But. Of course, I am mistaken. Be patient with this thought process of mine, but in my thinking, Japan is right next door to Korea. As a matter of fact, a flight from Busan to Osaka is less than 1 1/2 hours, so really, wouldn’t you think you could get there quickly and enjoy almost 5 full days?
But, because Korea is so isolated from the rest of the world, and so is Japan, and both Daegu and Kyoto are not airport towns, it’s not so easy. It’s not like I can just hop in a car and drive from the peninsula to the islands. So, once again, I leave my house at 6:00 a.m. and by the time I get to Kyoto, it’s 4 p.m. 😦 How does this happen? Why does it have to be so difficult and time-consuming? Something is seriously wrong with this story.
So. I arrive in Kyoto at 4 p.m. after many hours in planes, trains, buses, and airports. West Daegu to East Daegu to Busan to Osaka to Kyoto. On the final bus, from Kyoto Station to my guest house in northwest Kyoto, I sit astonishingly close to a guy who looks just like Pico Iyer. Pico, the author who enticed me here to Japan. I want to say something to this guy, but I can’t decide if he is Japanese or Indian. And if he is Japanese, then he’s definitely not Pico. Because Pico Iyer is Indian, raised in Great Britain, the author of The Lady and the Monk. I think I’ve actually fallen in love with Pico while reading his book and so my heart is all aflutter thinking this might be him.
Since I’m afraid to say anything to him, I pull out my copy of The Lady and the Monk, and flip, too casually, through it, holding it at an awkward angle so the cover is in his face. I put the book, face up, on my lap. If this man is Pico, he will certainly say, “Hey, I see you’re reading my book!” But he doesn’t even glance at it. He’s a thin man, slightly made, with very black hair and white sideburns. Like the pictures I’ve seen of the author, minus the white sideburns. Sigh.
Alas, I think it is not him. I’m disappointed because it is he who has set my imagination afire about Kyoto. So, deciding I am utterly mistaken, I turn my attention to the city outside the window. And my heart sinks.
This place looks just like Korea.
Before I left Korea for this trip, my trusty Korean friend Kim Dong Hee said: I’ve heard Kyoto is just like Gyeongju. Now, I know Gyeongju has a lot of cool sights. It’s the second most famous place in Korea, behind Seoul, for its cultural and historical “assets.” Kyoto is also known for its cultural legacies. But I shrugged off Kim’s comment when she said it. No, I don’t think so, Kim. I don’t think it will be anything like Korea.
But she was right. To a degree. On the exterior, it looks eerily similar to Korea, even to Gyeongju. Yet. Something seems different. It’s not so garishly bright. I don’t see so many primary colors. Japanese letters are more calligraphic and not so juvenile and cartoonish. It’s spotless. I don’t see big crates of empty soda bottles stacked everywhere. I don’t see filthy store windows with stacks of cardboard and other debris stuffed behind them. I don’t see litter skittering across the street. Everything looks orderly, pristine even. And in the chatter of the Japanese…. where are the “imnidas” and the “aseyos” and the “ne, ne, ne” and the whining sounds so prevalent in the Korean language?
I get dropped off at a bus stop where I run into an unshaven white guy wearing a knit cap and riding a bicycle. He sees me studying my map with a baffled look on my face and asks if he can help. He helps. I tell him I came from Korea. I can’t believe this place looks so similar to Korea, I say, grudgingly. He says, Oh, really? You think so? That’s too bad!
I go on my merry way. Straight, right, left, right. In Korean: chick-chin, ornjok, wenjok, ornjok. Chogi, Yogi. Kamsahamnida. Annyoung haseyo. These few words are nearly the sum of my vocabulary after one year of living in Korea. Sad.
I arrive at the place where I’ve arranged to stay, the “bon” guesthouse. A tall, thin, disheveled-looking Japanese guy in a khaki safari-type vest answers the door and takes me in to give me the lay of the land. By the time he finishes showing me around, I’ve decided I’m staying in a hippie commune. This is quite a shock to me as I’m paying the same price, $42/night, that I paid for my lush, tropical paradise rooms in Cambodia. This highlights the difference between the cheap prices in Cambodia and expensive Japan!
My room on the top-level is simply that, a room. No furnishings but a small oval table and a gas heater. Down some very steep creaky stairs and to the left is a communal room with a big rectangular table and two computers in two little cubbyholes, a bunch of maps and Lonely Planet guidebooks and another large gas heater. A map of the Kyoto neighborhood is drawn on the wall in black Magic Marker.
On the other side of the stairs is a kitchen where guests can cook their own dinner. All kinds of instructions are written, again with a trusty Magic Marker, on the cabinets and walls in the kitchen: “Hand towel–>” and “Dish-drying towel–>” and “The water takes a while to warm up. Please wait 3 minutes!” and “Please wash your dishes!”
Outdoors in the back is a kind of covered patio with two showers, a Japanese-style squat toilet in a tiny closet, and a Western-style toilet in another closet. That toilet has, much to my surprise, a heated seat and a bunch of other fancy gadgetry such as bidets spraying out icy cold water to your undersides. Two sinks for washing and brushing teeth are built into an L-shaped shelf. All of these outdoor toilets, showers and sinks are shivery-cold. Little space heaters are set up by the sinks and in each shower stall, with Magic Marker instructions to “Please turn off when you finish!!”
The owner tells me he will make up my bed when I go out. This consists of two mattress pads on the floor and with a sheet over them and two thick heavy comforters. All over the gas heater in the room are written instructions in Magic Marker: “Heat goes off after 3 hours. Push here to restart –>.”
The owner is friendly and speaks good English and takes time to patiently explain to me the bus system in Kyoto, which is highly user-friendly. Kyoto is laid out in a grid and the city prints an excellent bus system map showing what buses stop at each bus stop and diagrams the route each bus takes. I get an English version of this map. He tells me about cheap restaurants on a nearby “shopping street” and how to get downtown and basically, the whole time I am here, he explains whatever I want to know in great and painstaking detail. He’s amazing!
I decide to immediately strike out and take the bus to downtown Kyoto for the night. I feel confident after all his explanations that I can find my way easily. And I do. I catch the bus at the Daitokuji stop at the end of the “shopping street” and get dropped after a half-hour at Shijo Karasuma. I walk down the wide street, lined with Gucci and other designer shops and bright white streetlights and low-slung buildings. Apparently, Kyoto has height restrictions on its buildings, so I don’t see the high-rises that fill other cities. In 1990, the height restrictions were raised from 200 feet to 45 meters; even so, the skyline is low. Apparently there are only three buildings that exceed this height limitation, including Kyoto Tower.
I’m a little disappointed in the modern downtown, because I want to see traditional teahouses and restaurants. I walk toward Gion, the pleasure and entertainment district, but I never make it there. I take a left on a pedestrian-only street, Shinkyogoku Covered Arcade, where brilliant colors and lights make for a festive atmosphere. I wander along , checking out the shops and then walk one street over to the parallel arcade on Teramachi. Teramachi is not nearly as crowded as Shinkyogoku and is a little darker. Teramchi apparently means “temple town” and was named so because most temples were located along this street. It’s quieter and not so commercial.
On Skinkyogoku, I come across a beautiful shrine: Nishiki Temmangu Shrine. Sugawara Michizane, a statesman, scholar and poet, is worshiped here as a god of wisdom, study, good business. This is the only shrine of a local deity on this busy street. A 300-meter-deep well is here from which people can drink and make wishes. It’s an oasis of serenity on this busy street, with its floating white lanterns and dark open courtyard. All over Japan, in these little shrines, are wishing wells, trees where wishes on bits of paper are tied. Racks of little wood shingles with Japanese characters drawn on them must be used for something, but I don’t know what. I see several Japanese pull the huge rope to ring a bell and clap two times, then put their palms together to pray.
I stop into a stark and clean Japanese restaurant with white globe lamps, where I order a Kirin beer, salmon over rice and vegetables tempura. I am the only person in this restaurant, so I just eat and stare into space, thinking about Pico Iyer’s Kyoto love story. I think anyplace must take on a special aura when you’re in love, and I’m starting to realize that it’s doubtful I will have the same experience as Pico, being alone here as I am.
Later I stroll along the streets, captivated by the jewel-colored merchandise displays, exotic umbrellas and skirts, kimono, dangling what-nots, socks with cartoon faces. I pass too many vending machines to count, filled with cafe au lait, Coke, Minute Maid, Big Gulps, Fanta and Vitamin Guard, along with traditional green teas. These are stylish and enticing vending machines, persistently humming their sales pitches, offering refreshment at any time of day or night.
Back at the guesthouse, I turn on my heater, climb into my on-the-floor bedding, and read some more of Pico Iyer. I’m restless to explore his Kyoto for the next three days. I drift off and about midway through the night I hear a funny little ditty playing in my room, and realize it’s the heater, giving me warning that its 3 hours is almost up. It’s like a snooze alarm, going off every 5 minutes until suddenly the room is plunged into cold. I climb out of my warm bed and turn the heat back on, until the next 3 hour alarm. Surreal.