Reports From The Road, Travel

Report From Japan # 1

October 18, 2010
Kyoto, Japan

October 18, 2010

The seed of this solo adventure started when I read the lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, A Summer Day: “Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I’d just looked up from working eighteen years at the software company my husband, Cradoc, and I started. In the last year I also finished the first draft of my memoir, part of which was about a year long solo trip I took to Europe in 1986. My plan with my one wild and precious life had always been to explore the world. But it had been twenty-three years since I returned from my solo adventure in Europe. Since I was married in 1989 most of my travels were with Cradoc. We traveled well together, I loved his company, he helped lift my luggage. But I wanted to re-sharpen my solo travel skills, wanted to challenge myself to get back out there alone, wanted to finish the trip I started in 1986 and make my way around the world.

I worried I’d waited too long to travel the way I wanted to do; with a backpack, no concerns about health or comfort, no timeline, no aging parents or aging body to worry about, no erratic hormones bouncing my emotions around, no need for a home, just happy to be out in the world. At fifty-three years old I wanted to stay in nice hotels, take non-stop flights, eat healthy food, not be too warm or too cold, too wet or too dry, not pack too much but not look like a slob. Two sides of my personality clashing; the nesting comfort seeking side versus the adventurous wanderer side.

I told Justin, the travel agent at Airtreks, I wanted to book a flight around the world, but I wasn’t sure I was up to it. An around the world trip would be like running a marathon and I was barely in shape to run a 10k. “I’ve booked a lot of around the world tickets,” Justin said. “I’ve heard back from people and It seems trips under three months are more fun than the strain of going around the world in one go. You can come back home and rest up before heading to the next continent.”

At the end of August I bought my ticket for a simplified trip to cover one continent; Asia. I also shortened my travel time to two months. In the whirlwind of travel details like getting my ticket, vaccinations, travel insurance, visas, booking hotel rooms in Kyoto, Beijing, Kathmandu and Hong Kong, trying to decide what luggage to use, what shoes to wear, which pants to bring, what coat would work the best, I wondered what the hell I was doing. Why did I need to challenge myself this way? These thoughts started after reading different articles on the Internet about how to stay healthy in Asia. There was so much that could go wrong. I worried about pollution, my stomach, flight delays, weather, crowds, the comfort of the beds, crime, sleepless overnight train rides. It all seemed so doable before I paid for my ticket.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” This trip to Asia scared me. Why not be satisfied with seeing Europe? Because I wanted a bigger world. There was a fine line between being informed and being paranoid, between taking care of myself and getting sick from fear. I stopped reading the websites.

Family and friends reactions to my trip varied:

“You need to be careful, they are not like us over there.”

“You’re going to Asia alone? Yes. All alone? Yes. Good for you.”

“I could never do that, I have too much fear.”

“You’re awesome.”

My mother never liked my lifestyle. She wanted me to stay safely by her side. During my solo trip in Europe, which was meant to be the starting point of an around the world adventure, my mother tried to get me to come back home every time we spoke. Finally in the spring of 1987, while I fell in love with Italy and my Italian lover, she told me I had to come home to take care of my sister’s three children. “Your sister needs an operation. This is a family emergency. And you’re just traveling anyway.” My trip ended then and there with the seeds of my around the world adventure drying up in the hot Italian sun.

Here was the phone conversation I had with mother to break the news about my latest adventure:

“I bought my ticket for my trip.”

“Around the world?” (high pitched screech)

“No, just to Asia.”

“When?” (big sigh).

“October 15th.”

“This October 15th? This year?”

“Yes (I laughed), this October 15th.”

(She groaned). “You’ll be out of contact for so long.”

“I’ll only be gone two months. Then Cradoc and I will come to Tucson to spend time with you this winter.”

(Instantly perked up) “Oh! Well that’s alright then.”

“We’ll head to Europe from Tucson in March.”

(Another groan) “You really are a gypsy. I try to explain your life to my friends but it’s impossible.”

I left Vancouver, Canada on a clear, autumn day and landed at Osaka airport on a balmy and moist night. I walked across the road where I stayed at the Hotel Nikko Kansai airport hotel. I didn’t want to have to find my way to Kyoto with jet lag. For dinner I ate a small bowl of granola and watched T.V.. The room was so comfortable. Like Goldilocks I found the bed just right, with soft sheets and a light cotton duvet. The AC kept the room cool and quiet. While seated on my heated toilet seat, I entertained myself by pressing every button on the control panel, like something off the space shuttle. There were a few surprises.

The next morning I took the Haruka express train to Kyoto. People lined up calmly while we waited for the train to be cleaned. Inside the train was silent. No one talked on their cell phones, or to each other, no music played over the speakers. Even the tracks were smooth and silent as we sped towards Kyoto. The towns we passed looked grey and drab; large cement apartment buildings with laundry hanging to dry on the balconies, some newly cut rice fields, huge parking areas by the train stations filled with bicycles, endless power lines and transformers, tiled roofs, shuttered windows, old women standing in doorways, small cars driven in narrow streets, palm trees and persimmon trees heavy with the orange fruit. I could’ve been in the south of Italy.

The conductor entered the car, bowed to us all, took our tickets, and bowed again as he left thanking us profusely.

Welcome to Japan.

By the time the seventy-five minute train ride from the airport ended I was in love with Japan. At the Kyoto train station I walked into the controlled chaos. I decided to walk to my hotel since the woman at the tourist office said it would take about thirty minutes. A short walk versus trying to find the subway for three stops seemed like an even payoff. With my Eagle Creek convertible backpack/wheeling suitcase pulled behind me I walked a few blocks from the station. At the first Shinto temple I came to I sat on a bench to cool off from the hot sun. I looked at the temple and smiled. I had truly arrived in Japan.

From the temple I turned off the busy main street onto a side road. Unlike the busy main roads the residential side streets belonged to pedestrians and bicyclists. The noise level dropped completely. Only a random car came down the narrow road. There were no street signs and the few I found were only written in Japanese.

I showed my map to a young Japanese couple. The husband insisted on walking me to my destination. After a few blocks I realized he didn’t have a clue where he was going. I told him I knew where I was and ventured off on my own again. A few blocks later I asked a young woman and her mother for help and pointed on the map where I wanted to go. Communicating with mime they said they would ask in the store on the corner. They came out shaking their head, the shop keeper did not know. They flagged down a taxi and before they could ask him another car pulled behind him so he drove away. The daughter ran with the map over to a person sweeping the front of their house and the mother ran behind her. I stood on the corner observing in action all I had heard about the helpfulness of the Japanese. They could not leave me until they helped me find my way. The kind women came running back and pointed down the street. I was five buildings away from where I wanted to go. They could release me now.

I arrived at the Iwatazen Royokan, a traditional Japanese inn, at 2:00 P.M.. Check in was 4:00 P.M.. I left my luggage behind the desk, drank the cold tea that was offered for the hit of caffeine and headed out to explore.

I walked to a huge covered shopping area, the Nishiki Market, bursting with young people shopping. Mostly junk clothing stores, but I came upon one stall with an old man selling cooked sweet potatoes. When he saw me he tried to hide in the back of the stall. All my attempts to ask him about his sweet potatoes through mime ended with him shooing me away. I laughed to myself, turned onto a main shopping street where the noise and crowds hit me like a brick. I turned back to the quiet side streets.

As I passed the vendor with the sweet potatoes again, he was now happily talking to a group of Japanese people. A tall, lean man stopped me and pointed to my camera and said, “Oh, a Leica. My favorite camera.” I took it out of the case and showed him. He told me he still shoots black and white film with the four Leica cameras he has. Another man, a friend of the Leica user, asked me to sit down in front of the sweet potatoes man’s stall. “I better not, he doesn’t like me. He was mean to me a few minutes ago,” I said jokingly, not knowing the Japanese don’t joke like this. The man turned to the vendor, they exchanged heated words. The man bowed and apologized for the vendor’s behavior and handed me a sweet potato.

In broken English he told me the vendor said to keep the hot potato wrapped like it was for one week and then eat it. This made no sense to me and I turned to the Leica man, whose name was Jun, and whose English was better. I asked him why I should wait one week to eat it. He asked the vendor and told me, “He said it will be sweeter then.”

I was introduced to the three young women who were with the two men and I was invited to join them for a cup of tea. They were visiting for the day from Osaka and asked my name, what I did for a living, how long I’d be in Kyoto, where I was staying. The man who bought me the potato, Yuri, a short, stocky man around sixty years old, said they’d been out drinking sake. “We are drunk.”

We made our way to a huge, jammed food mall. I was given a lesson on what all the specialities were; dried fish, deep fried fish on a stick, sweet grilled mochi filled with black bean paste. It was divine chaos, trying to keep up with Yuri, while Jun insisted I stop at the stalls to taste the foods. The three girls followed behind, giggling with hands over their mouths. The crowds didn’t bother me at all, in fact the energy carried me into a state of euphoria. I was in Kyoto. I was traveling alone. I was tasting foods I’d never eaten before. Bliss. Pure bliss.

We went into a shop and Yuri pointed to the back where we could sit down on a bench. The owner of the store was a friend of his. The store was known for the expensive truffle-like mushrooms that grew in Kyoto. I sat next to Jun and we talked about music, each with our iPods in our hands, when suddenly Yuri rain over and said to me, “You come to my house for dinner with my wife.” This took me by surprise and the last thing I wanted to do was get back on the train for Osaka. I said quickly, too quickly, “No, I can’t.” He was crestfallen and sank onto the bench next to me. I’d made my first social blunder in Japan. I caused him to lose face and I knew it.

I turned to Jun and said, “I didn’t handle that right, did I? I shouldn’t have said no so quickly.”

“It’s fine. He understands.”

When we got outside I thanked Yuri for the invitation and explained I’d only arrived in Kyoto a few hours ago. Otherwise I would have loved to have met his wife and had dinner with them. He beamed at this and said, “It’s good.” A reminder for me to brush up on my manners.

My new friends headed back to Osaka. We never did have that cup of tea. I headed back into the food mall. A few minutes later a woman in her thirties told me my water bottle looked like it was about to fall out of the side of my backpack. That opening line led to me following her and her mother to learn more about the foods. At one stall, one that sold a selection of sweets, her mother turned and held up her hand gesturing that I could select five of them. “As a gift for you,” her daughter told me. I felt like a kid in a candy shop as I choose my five sweets.

When we came to a side street the mother saw a bench and insisted we sit and have a snack. Her daughter’s English was flawless. “I learned in school and by listening to the radio. I am often made fun of because my accent is so American, not British.” We sat on the bench in comfortable silence eating sliced persimmons Mom had brought from home. I told them about the sweet potato and how I was supposed to keep it for a week.

The mother made a face and shook her head and said something to her daughter, “She said if you do that it will probably go bad. You should eat it while it’s still hot.”

“So this isn’t a tradition you’ve heard about?”

“No, and my mother knows her food. She said maybe the vendor didn’t like Americans and wanted you to get sick.”

“Yes, perhaps,” was all I said.

I practiced what little Japanese I learned before my trip and was congratulated on my good accent. I was comfortable in Kyoto, like I’d lived there many lifetimes.

By the time I made it back to inn I thought it would be 6:00 P.M.. So much had happened while I was out. I laughed out loud when I saw it was just 4:00 P.M.. I was shown to my  clean and cozy room. An older woman piled a futon, sheet and comforter onto the tatami mat of woven grass. zhe gestured for me to sit at the low table where she poured me a cup of green tea, then left the room. I ate my barely warm sweet potato. It was nothing special, just a dry starchy potato with the two ends cut off and steamed. Not very soft or sweet, just like the vendor.

I headed out into the balmy night. The bikers headlights came at me like a swarm of fireflies. Even more people were out walking. I saw only a handful of non-Japanese people. We usually did a double take when we saw each other. Almost no one spoke English, there were no street signs, and all the other signs were in Japanese. That left me clueless of where I was, what kind of food was on offer, or how much it was. The area I was in didn’t have photos or fake plates of food to point to and it was hard to see in the windows to look at what people were eating since most restaurants were behind closed windowless doors. I wandered the streets until a wave of exhaustion hit me. I had to eat something fast. I found a convenience store and bought a small package of cooked rice with seaweed and three chicken skewers. Back in my room I ate my surprisingly delicious meal that cost me less than $4.00, then collapsed onto my futon even though it was only 8:00 P.M.. A Japanese guy next door yelled at his wife through the paper thing walls. The futon was too hard. The pillow too thin. I feel into a dead sleep in ten minutes.

My morning started off great with the traditional Japanese breakfast in the communal dining room; boiled tofu, pickles, grilled fish, miso soup, rice, veggie dish, nori, and fruit. I headed out early and wandered along the old streets for a long time until I hit a wall of Japanese tourists heading towards the famous Silver Pavilion temple. Not interested in big crowds, I turned around and took a small path because it looked like it led to a quiet place. And it did.

Up a flight of stairs I found a Buddhist temple, not an old one, not a famous one, but beautiful, peaceful, and cool. I walked along the grounds, the tombstones and bamboos. As I was about to leave an older monk invited me in for tea and a sweet cake. In broken English he told me about the temple, about sixty years old, following Shinto Buddhism from 800 years ago. I asked about the services and he said they are in the morning and evening, but you can always ask a monk to say a special prayer to call in your ancestors.

I sipped my tea slowly hoping someone would want to pay for a prayer and I could sit and listen to the chanting. Finally, a woman came in, handed the monk an envelope and walked out. I followed her and three other women to the temple. I asked non-verbally if I could sit in for the prayer and one woman said, “Hai.”

The women must not have donated much money because the monk just lit a candle and they lit some incense and that was that. But the temple was cool and the bird’s song was beautiful so I stayed put on the floor, leaning against the back wall. A few minutes later a woman came in with her daughter, around six years old and a different monk chanted for ten minutes, beautiful sounds that calmed my soul. I was in no hurry to leave when it was done. Another family came in with an elderly father, daughter, and grandson and granddaughter. They got the full monty also. Even though it was the same chant it was a different monk singing and I sat through it all again. Finally a family of four generations of women came in. This time the monk was a woman and I was curious what the chant would sound like with a woman singing. Her voice was like an angel. The sounds, the birds, the cool breeze blowing on me, the beauty of the grandmother down to the great granddaughter as they called out to their ancestors touched me deeply.

I called out to my great grandmother, Anna, who had the courage to leave Germany on her own when she was fourteen years old to make a better life for herself in America. She worked as a maid in New York City and saved enough to bring over eight of eleven brothers and sisters, and finally her mother. I called in her courage and strength for my travels in Asia.

Finally, it was time to go. I passed the small room and waved goodbye to the older monk. He came out to talk again. He told me about the famous temple up the road. I said I’d been headed that way but it was too busy for me. “I’d rather come to a temple that is not famous and find peace instead.”

“How did you find our temple?”

“I was just wandering.”

“Wandering is the best way,” he said with a shy smile.

That night I wandered around Kyoto again. On the side streets there were no stop signs or lights, just yield signs. I didn’t hear one horn honk. I felt safe, if not exactly welcomed by all – more ignored or invisible. The cars worked with the pedestrians and bicyclists, never came too close, even on the narrow streets, never went by too fast. I didn’t see one person talking on their cell phone while walking or driving. There were parks, mass transportation, a vibrant city where people lived and worked. Kyoto was full of surprises like coming out of the side street to a huge boulevard that reminded me of Paris. People of all ages rode mostly one speed beach cruisers with baskets and lights. The taxi drivers wore a black suit and tie and white gloves. Some have little chauffeur like caps they put on when they opened the door of their fancy, black,waxed four door sedan for a passenger. No one tried to cheat me, sell me anything, pickpocket me, talk to me, or beg from me.

Everyone seemed to use mass transportation to get around; bus, train, subway, taxi, bicycle, walking. It put North America to shame. Their city wouldn’t shut down if oil, or when oil, became a luxury item. Kyoto felt like a city I could live in.  I wasn’t sure they would want me though; there was a banner every few feet down a busy tourist street welcoming people to the city in French, German and Japanese. But none in English.

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