new adventures in being totally fucking lost: Takayama morning, Kyoto afternoon.

 
This should be a bit shorter than the previous epic: in every major trip, there’s inevitably sooner or later a day that’s largely lost to travel and uninteresting stuff, and this was that day. We woke up, quickly packed our things, took a cold shower (damn you, water-hogging swiss tourists!), and rushed off into the morning haze to grab some breakfast and do some shopping. Tea and toast? Eaten. Assorted pickles? Acquired. Several pieces of lacquerware? Sorted. Two or three tiny sake sampler sets? Done and done. We were a little more efficient than we’d even planned on being, and ended up with a little time to kill, so we stopped at a cafe that offered TEA AND CAKE OR DEATH… okay, actually just tea and cake, and killed about half an hour there before returning to the Zen Ro Ji to assemble our suddenly much less wieldy bags and lug them back to the station.



From Takyama to Nagoya is about a 2 hour and 45 minute train ride, and at least the mountainous areas offered some incredible scenery if you were fast enough to catch it. Since this wasn’t a shinkansen, the front car of the train actually offered windows open to the front and sides, which was amazing to watch in person, but proved a bit difficult for my pocket camera to cope with:



The views out the side were a bit more its speed.



Getting off on the platform at Nagoya was like being slapped in the face with a hot, wet towel: we were no longer up in the cool mountains, but down in the lowlands again, and it was summer in earnest here. We had about 20 minutes to make our transfer, so we hustled ourselves over to the Shinkansen platform, lined up at the marker for the car our tickets indicated, and jumped onto the train the moment it got into the station and disgorged its passengers, knowing that we’d need a minute or two to stow our luggage. (Japanese trains are not big on luggage compartments: a lot of people make use of services that, for a stiff fee, forward your bags between hotels.) We did this and walked through the car to seats 6A and B, only to find them occupied by a family. We stared at our tickets for a second, started to look around for a conductor, and then I looked at my watch…

CAZART. Wrong train. In Japan, if your train is scheduled to depart at 14:22, there is no reason whatsoever to assume that a train coming onto the platform at 14:15 is your train. Because it’s not: what on earth is unusual about turning around two super-express train departures on the same platform within 7 minutes of each other? What would be at all difficult about that? Oops. At more speed than I would have given us credit for being able to produce at that point, we ran back to the end of the car, grabbed up all our luggage, and jumped off the train just as the sunny JR “all aboard” jingle began to play.

Just imagine Amtrak trying to do that. Now stop crying and forget I said anything.

Seven minutes later, our train pulled onto the platform and half an hour later we were in Kyoto station, a hypermodern, 11-story-tall temple to commerce and transit parked in the middle of a 1200-year-old city mostly known for 1000-year-old shrines. We’ll be going back to take proper pictures of the station later, but this stood out a bit on our way through:



Apparently you can add Cafe du Monde to the list of places making a little money on the side in Japan.

The proprietors of our B&B had offered to pick us up at a subway station near their place, which was looking more and more like the best idea ever: we didn’t have a good notion of where they were, we were pretty loaded down with bags from Takayama, and it was stupid hot. We took the Kyoto metro up to Imadegawa station and called them to let them know we were there. About ten minutes later, a Japanese/American couple picked us up in an somewhat weatherworn Isuzu, and drove us to their house, a hundred-year-old Japanese-style house in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the north of Kyoto.

We’ll call them K. and B. for now: I’m going to grouse a little bit about the service, and since I liked them fine on a personal level, I’d rather not have google attach my whingings to their name permanently. We kind of got the impression that they were either new to the business, or just weren’t that into it and were doing it halfheartedly to bring in some money on the side. Really, the problem was that we’d gotten the impression via email that they were running a full-on B&B, and really what they were doing was renting out a room in their house to the occasional traveller… for $50/person/night. Nothing wrong with that, but for $100/night (more than we paid for an actual hotel in Matsumoto), we were expecting a little more…organization. Little things like maps, a business card so that we could use a taxi to get home if all else failed. Failing that, printable directions to the place, or even an explanation of how to get there on public transit that involved a bit less hand-waving at the nearest mountain, and a bit more on-street landmarks and left-right turns.

Luckily, Miranda has an excellent sense of direction, or we’d still be wandering around Kyoto trying to find our way back to the house after our first night out. As it was, they quickly left to run some errands after we’d disembarked, and since we wanted to at least do a little exploration (not to mention get dinner) that evening, we walked out of the house, looked around, and had a bit of a sinking feeling: long, unmarked (of course) residential streets stretched in each direction. The Lonely Planet maps promised to be as useless as ever. Obviously, drastic action was called for: we took off in the direction of what we hoped K. had indicated as the nearest major bus stop, and along the way there I kept my eye out for anything that might prove to be a useful landmark. In about two blocks, we passed a hair salon that was still open, and I got a bright idea, walked in, and confused the hell out of them by asking in pidgin Japanese for their business card. After a little back and forth, they handed me what appeared to be a paper brochure, but it had what I was looking for: a map showing their location, so we were now at worst one taxi ride away from “close to home.”

Next item of business: a real map, followed by some sightseeing and possibly dinner. Lonely Planet didn’t mention any international bookstores, so we figured we’d head back to Kyoto station and find the tourist office there. A few block later, we found a bus stop, and even better, it had an obviously not-Japanese person there: a French (or possibly Haitian: I couldn’t peg the accent in the brief conversation) guy who pointed us around the corner to the right bus stop. Victory!

…sorta. As it turned out, we really should have taken the bus to the nearest metro station and taken the subway from there: downtown Kyoto is basically a week-long traffic jam due to the preparations for the Gion Festival later this week, and it took us the better part of an hour on a packed, barely-moving bus to finally pull into the station. Did I mention that it was hot enough to melt glass? We had, at this point, been in better moods. Whatever, we found the tourist office, got a 2-day bus and metro unlimited pass, grabbed a fistful of map-like things, and directions to a bookstore in the vast basement of Kyoto Station (more on the hugeness of Kyoto Station tomorrow), with a not-very-promising suggestion that they “might” have a proper book-form bilingual street atlas of Kyoto.

Well, the English section of the bookstore did have one street map of Kyoto, but it was a flat paper fold-out map, and didn’t have block broken down into building numbers. Oh well, by this time we had at least three map-like objects not counting the LP book, and it would just have to do. Other priorities were asserting themselves, primarily getting some dinner before we murdered each other or any passers-by. A quick consultation of LP provided few suggestions for the station area, but there was an at least interesting-sounding unagi-don place one station away, so we grabbed the metro heading north.

For the record, if you are ever in Kyoto Station during the week of the Gion Festival, are tired, sweaty and cranky, have grave doubts about the quality and locatablity of your lodgings, and are all-in-all one step away from smacking the next fool who looks cross-eyed at you, do not take the subway a station north in search of an unagi-don restaurant that you only have a vague notion of how to find. Because you will exit the subway directly into a mob of happy revellers all out for a night’s stroll to see the Gion Festival Floats and Shrines that are parked at strategic intervals every block or so in the neighborhood a bit north of Kyoto Station, and thus there will be several hundred thousand slowly moving people between you and your dinner. What you should do is take the escalator up to the “ramen restaurant food court” on the 9th floor of the station, where you could be eating an excellent bowl of ramen in air-conditioned comfort a mere five minutes later. But we didn’t figure that out until the next day. Suffice it to say that we found our way to the unagi place…eventually. The unagi-don was good, but $16/plate for eel over rice is a bit stiff even for Japan.

Still, a plate of hot food in an air-conditioned restaurant did a fair bit for restoring our sense of equilibrium, and while it was long past closing time for most of Kyoto’s temples and shrines, we decided to take a stroll around the Gion Shrine, itself, on the theory that the shrine at the center of the upcoming festival should have something interesting going on in or near to it.

Getting off at the nearby subway stop, we found that the shrine was lit up and people were streaming into and out of it, so our suspicions were correct. We heard the sound of flutes and drums from around the corner and decided to investigate that first…

…and were completely foiled. The flute-and-drum music was coming out of the P.A. system of a store hoping to cash in on Gion Matsuri fever. Bother. Back to the shrine, which was gorgeous enough to make all of the evening’s frustrations seem worth it.



Lanterns were lit all over the various courtyards and pathways inside the shrine, casting a friendly glow over everything and everybody. In the center courtyard, a stage was lit with dozens of lanterns on each side.



On the stage were the portable shrines that would be carried at the head of the parade on Thursday.





We spent a good half hour wandering the shrine grounds, taking occasional pictures and managing to relax a little bit. Then we headed out into the nearby neighborhood: a former pleasure district that still sees the occasional geisha (one of the 1000 left in the world) walk by, but is mostly now, like central Takayama, a series of streets of old merchant homes that have been converted into shops and restaurants. In the evening, it was quite pretty: Kyoto is much less illuminated than Tokyo, and some of the side-streets were actually dark.

Around 8:30, our feet were starting to hurt and we realized that we had no idea how long it was going to take us to find our way home, so we gave up our search for ice cream, pulled into a streetcorner and opened up…well, all of our maps. We had an English bus map that omitted various routes and stop names. We had a complete bus map that was all in Japanese. We had Lonely Planet and the Kyoto Tourist Guide, and we had the map I’d bought at the station bookstore, which had metro stops but no bus stops.

It’s at times like this that I am very glad that I date a former travel professional with an innate sense of direction, and even better one who knows enough Chinese characters to be a bit dangerous reading Japanese Kanji.. After a bit of cross-checking between the maps, Miranda decided that the 202 bus would likely put us back at the intersection where we’d started our adventure in the afternoon… and that the nearest 202 stop was about two blocks away. Which it was. And the next bus was three minutes away. Miracle of miracles, we were home less than 45 minutes later.

And thus ended our first day in Kyoto, with me trying fitfully to go to sleep in an un-airconditioned room on a hot summer night, and only occasionally succeeding. But I’ll save my real weather whinging for tomorrow.

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