I'm so glad I decided to go to Kyoto! It was wonderful, beautiful, social, exciting and maybe a little bit exhausting, but the good kind of sore and tired that comes from having walked and walked through some of the most beautiful and interesting places of ones life...so far...
When I left my apartment this morning, it was a bit of a gamble. The clouds were gloomy, and occasional drops of rain splashed against my cheeks and I walked towards the Toyota Train Station. My directions had me on the train for Akaige, but I had a momentary brain blank and didn't realize that the train for Fushimi was the train that stopped at Akaike, so I had one of my first few unsuccessful experiences when asking for directions. I asked a guy if the train we were on stopped at Akaike. He said, “hmmm...maybe no” so I got off, and just as the train was leaving realized that I had been on the correct train originally, and now it was gone. I was really pissed, but luckily Japan's public transit rocks, and in less than 12 minutes, the next train was there, and I was one it, ready and moving.
It was an easy transfer from the Fushimi Line to the Tsunamai (I think) line to the Shinkansen. I'm very glad I went with the Shinkansen. It was fast, super comfortable, and the view (especially approaching and passing through the mountains) was breathtaking. I couldn't stop snapping pictures and just gaping at the mountains and the sakura and the mist and all such things. Also, ultimately, missing the first train worked out well also, because had I not been a little late, I wouldn't have met my Kiyomizu Temple companions Rei and William. William had been to Kyoto before and knew all the ins and outs of the Temples, while Rei was a first timer like me. But I am jumping ahead.
Upon arriving in Kyoto, the weather had cleared to partly cloudy, which was more than good
enough for me! I first went to the Visitors Center for an English map. I have learned this lesson well...if there is a Visitor's Center, stop there and ask for an “eigo no chizu” (English Map). Visitor's Centers tend to have such things, and it makes navigation worlds easier. (you only have to ask for directions 2-3 times in a normal day as opposed to 10x) This time at the visitor's center though, it was actually a bit of culture shock, in large part because there were so many foreigners. English (as well as Chinese and Korean) were offered as options at the information desks. Also, unlike my Toyota City visitor's center, which is invariably empty, or the one in Nagoya even, which had only a 3 minute wait, this one was packed to the gills. Kyoto is a big tourist area, and it was clear that Japanese was not a necessity to get around (at least in the tourist areas).
This lead to some really interesting areas of confusion:
1. Just because a person looked Asian did not mean he or she spoke Japanese. I know it's stereotyping, but in my city and in Nagoya too, pretty much everyone speaks Japanese, and if you look Japanese, you probably are Japanese (or at least speak it much better than I do). I know that there is a significant Chinese population here in Toyota, but if I've met any of them (asking for directions), they also had better Japanese than me, so I wouldn't have known without asking. This did mean that more than once spoke to someone in Japanese who in turn responded back to me in English saying they didn't speak Japanese.
2. Lots of foreigners not only meant lots of English (and Chinese), but it also meant lots of people who were clearly, visibly, not Japanese. In Toyota, if I see someone who isn't obviously Japanese, I give a bit of a start (and usually end up striking up a conversation with them). In Kyoto, at least in the tourist areas, foreigners abounded. As a result, I didn't feel like I stood out so much, which was kind of neat.
3. Crowded, crowded, crowded! There were just so many people around! Even in Nagoya, which is the 4th largest city in Japan, the buses and trains are not packed to breathing room only. In Kyoto, the press of people was at points overwhelming, for example: the bus back to the train station was like a game of twister. Good thing everyone was pleasant smelling and nice!
The Visitor's Center was an experience of it's own also, mainly because while they had a lot of literature around in multiple languages, you still had to wait in the long line to go to the front desk for a map. I think it was strategic so as to allow wandering foreigners like myself to at least talk with one English (or Chinese or Korean) speaking person about where you were going and how to get there. My guide was incredibly helpful, and he gave me clear instructions on how to get to the sites I wanted to see, and good advice on how to truncate my list so it was all possible within one day. And this was all done in English, something that had me feeling rather odd as I've mainly been asking for directions in Japanese for the past two weeks.
Armed with my map, I was ready to take the bus to the Kiyomizu Temple, a hop, skip and jump from Gion, where the Geisha work. I saw a huge line for bus tickets (for day passes) and glanced at it and the bus line and then decided to ask someone in the bus line if you could pay on the bus if you were only riding one time, instead of buying a ticket. Naturally, I started this process in my rather agonizing Japanese: “Moshi, i-kai (hold out one finger to emphasize 'one time') busu wo norita...ta..kattara...i-kai...” Response: “Sumimasen, wakarimasen.” (Sorry, don't understand). And deep breath, start again. That's how I met William, who cut in and said, “it's okay if you ask in English.”
So I did, and through the course of our bus ride, I began to talk with William and his friend Rei, and soon we were exploring the Temple together. Both William and Rei are from China, near Shanghai. William had also lived in Toronto, and both he and Rei spoke excellent English. (I feel so weird only speaking one and a quarter so languages, as most foreigners I meet have a minimum of 2-3 languages under their belt with excellent skills) William has been to Japan multiple times and thus a font of information both about the Temples and Japan itself. He took us here, there and everywhere, and was kind enough to take most of Rei and my pictures as well. You'll see both of them in my Facebook photos. After exploring the Temple, and taking many photos as the sun came and went and came back again, we got tea and sweets, did some shopping, and then they had to get back to Tokyo, while I continued on through Kyoto, on my own again.
Some highlights of this time:
1. I asked two nice Japanese women if they could take my picture in front of a small water related part of the shrine, and not only did they do that, but they also wanted pictures taken with me, so we each took a set on our respective cameras. Super cool!
2. I crawled through a tiny hole on a good luck stature and then wrote my wish for the year on a piece of paper: to make lots of great friends in Japan. It is already coming true!
3. On the way back to the train, I met Bonnie and Kevin and was even able to help them with finding ATMs that accept foreign cards by showing them to the post office and giving information on how to find post offices in the future. Both of them are from the States, California. It was Bonnie's first time in Japan also (while Kevin was more of a veteran). We had a great time chatting about the wonders of Kyoto as we walked about, and I'm glad to have spent time and exchanged contact information with the both of them. We also took a photo together, so that's going to come up as soon as facebook gets its act together.
Then it was back to Toyota. All of that walking had really tired me out, and on the last train to Toyota, I actually fell asleep. When I woke up the train was stopped, and totally different people were sitting and waiting. Because the train wasn't moving, just sitting with the doors open, I began to get worried that we were already in Toyota, or we had gone, a scary prospect, somewhere else I didn't know, so I asked the guys across from me if we were in Toyota. They said yes, and I jumped up and ran off the train. I'm really feeling like a resident now, even falling asleep on the train like I see so many other people doing when I ride. I'm lucky I woke up before the train started moving again,or who knows where I'd have ended up.
The short story: Kyoto rocked! Well worth every penny I spent to go, and I'm glad I did.