After experiencing one of the best days of my life at the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, I was pretty sure that nothing we did afterwards could live up to the snow monkeys. However, I had heard great things about Kyoto and the amazing temples and shrines there, so I knew if anything could beat the snow monkeys, this would be it.
We headed off to Kyoto by way of a train from Nagano and then briefly switched lines to get on the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. The whole process sounds kind of complicated but mostly is not, thanks to the very helpful people who work at the train stations (in very snappy uniforms, might I add). We arrived in Kyoto shortly before lunch and went to check into our hotel, which was actually a traditional Japanese ryokan (inn). I had selected this particular ryokan – the Matsubaya Ryokan – so that we could get a true Japanese hotel experience but also not struggle too much with the language or the customs, since the hotel caters to foreign guests and was highly rated as being both very helpful and very authentic without being overpriced.
Now, I had very diligently printed our hotel confirmations and directions in both English and Japanese, not wanting to make any assumptions about the ability of anyone to speak English. I would like to say this was helpful, but as it turned out, the cab driver we selected didn’t know where the hotel was in English or Japanese, despite its location about 10 minutes from the central train station. We drove through the tiny back alleys of Kyoto and feared for our lives as he stopped multiple times for directions and nearly hit more than one electrical pole. Much to our relief, we finally found the ryokan and inside was one of the most helpful people we met on the whole trip (which is really saying something, because our sad gaijin asses were saved numerous times by benevolent Japanese people). He answered a million questions for us, gave us a quick overview of the best temples to see in Kyoto on our tight schedule, how to get there, and more. Whew!
The ryokan had strict rules about footwear on the various floors of the hotel, so all outside shoes had to be left at the base of the steps going upstairs. There was a brown pair of slippers to put on if you went upstairs, a black pair to put on if you were staying downstairs, and a special pair to put on if you went into the bathroom, which seemed a bit impractical to me given that the bathroom was literally the size of a very small closet and you basically stepped immediately into the shower anyway, but whatever.
After dropping our stuff off, we headed off to catch a bus to the first temple on our list at the suggestion of the hotel staff. He told us getting around by bus was the quickest and least confusing way, so we bought a pass for $5 that would give us access for the whole day. Little we did know that the crowding on those buses rivaled the crowding on the Tokyo subways, so we didn’t last long.
The first stop of the day was Kiyomizu-dera, a temple located in the hills surrounding Kyoto. It was a fairly long uphill walk through winding streets filled with traditional Japanese buildings and lots of people dressed in kimonos and traditional attire, which was really cool.
After visiting the temple, we made our way over to the Yasaka shrine by way of some windy old streets and interesting shops. It was all very charming and felt just like what you’d imagine old-world Japan to look like, except plus a lot of tourists.
We got a little lost on our way to the Yasaka shrine and ended up back on the streets of the city of Kyoto itself, which is not like the area near the shrines. It’s a bustling city that is a little dingy but has plenty of character. While walking, an older Japanese man asked us where we were from in very good English, and we responded. Lauren mentioned that she came from DC, which he was very excited about – “Oh! DC is a very…dignified city. Very dignified!” To which we agreed, because really, what else can you say? The rest of the conversation went pretty much like this:
Man: “I like talking to black people. They are the only genuine people. They know ‘the pain!’ Japanese people don’t have pain. They are soulless zombies, work all day and all night. Do everything the police tell them to do. They have no spirit, no fire! Government stole it!”
I immediately realized shit was about to get real and this was going to probably end in a street brawl between Lauren and this guy.
Lauren: “Well, I think Japanese people have experienced pain too. What about the tsunami or other natural disasters or other…THINGS [a not so subtle atomic bomb reference]?”
Man: “No, they know nothing! Black people know pain. You read Frederick Douglass? Very good man. He fought for the freedom! Japanese people have no freedom and they don’t care. It is a police state. They put you in jail and steal your soul! I just got out of jail, I was in for 18 days, they took my spirit. I am trying to start a revolution, get people to wake up! You must boycott the Tokyo Olympics because there are no human rights in Japan.”
Oh God Oh God Oh God Oh God.
Lauren: “UM, I’m not going to pretend I know everything about Japan, but I don’t really think you can say there are no human rights here when women can drive and walk freely on the streets and people aren’t being tortured to death and killed and starved in labor camps.”
Man: “No! No human rights! I am a writer, I have an active mind. I need to start a revolution. I am raising $300 to go to South Korea, that is where freedom is. Can you help by buying my book?”
I literally thought Lauren’s head was going to explode, so I did the only thing I could think of and started fishing around in my wallet for change. I didn’t have any, so I asked her if she did. Then her head actually exploded. We ended up buying his “book,” which is really more like a 12-page pamphlet, just so we could get away. What’s it about? Oh, you know. The history of African-American slavery as told from the perspective of a possibly homeless, possibly insane man in Kyoto. Title: “Black People.” I wish I was kidding.
After that, everything else about the day seemed comparatively tame. We visited some more shrines, including the elusive Yasaka Shrine and the Heian Shrine, as well as Kyoto Gate.
We decided to head into the Gion District for dinner, which is also known as the Geisha District. Geishas are traditional Japanese hostesses who are classically trained in music, art, dance, and poetry and are hired as entertainers. There’s a common perception in the U.S. that they are the Japanese equivalent of an escort, but that’s not true, although there are always exceptions. Anyway, the point is that geisha have very elaborate costumes and makeup and can sometimes be seen walking to appointments in the Gion District, so we hoped to catch a sighting of one.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see any geishas, but at this point we were getting pretty hungry, so we decided to pop into a restaurant that advertised an English menu and grab something for dinner. As we entered, we noticed it was a very traditional Japanese establishment and people were seated on the floor with their shoes off. I was super paranoid the entire trip about inadvertently doing something offensive to Japanese custom, so I rushed to take my boots off, drawing stares and laughter from literally everyone in the restaurant. It was uncomfortable, but I figured we would just sit down and eat, whatever. I sat down with my back to everyone and Lauren was like “They’re literally pointing and laughing and talking about us, we need to leave.” I was more embarrassed to leave and admit defeat than to be pointed at, but oh well.
We kept walking because I was on a mission to find a special flute for my dad, who is a musician. I try and get him a native musical instrument in each country I visit, and we just so happened to come across a music store, which was a miracle. My dad had assured me these flutes were everywhere and were cheap to buy, but I hadn’t seen a single one during our whole trip, which was rapidly coming to a close. I saw flutes in the window of this store and thanked the music gods for my good fortune! A very kind man came to the front of the store and started speaking to me in rapid Japanese about the flutes and what they could do. I was flattered that he thought I understood him. Anyway, $85 later (after being shown some that were several hundred dollars), I got that flute and breathed a sigh of relief. This may be the last time I promise to bring home a souvenir, or at least, the last time that I leave home without having an exact address for a store where the item can be purchased!
We got up early the next day to rent some bicycles to tour the sights before heading to Yokohama. While I initially was really excited about the idea of biking around from shrine to shrine, I think that was because I had a totally incorrect vision of what Kyoto was like. In my mind, it was all forested bike paths leading to serene shrines and children frolicking in nearby meadows. Kyoto is not like that. It’s a major city, and the shrines are beautiful, but there are no bike paths. You’re riding on the streets or the sidewalks with tons of cars, pedestrians, buses, scooters, etc, all on pretty narrow roads. Admittedly, I’m not from a big city and I’ve never lived in the heart of one, so I probably was a bit more traumatized than many people would probably be, but I feared for my life every second of that bike ride. Lauren insists I was being dramatic but I am always dramatic when buses are 6 inches away from my face.
We started the day at the Fushima-Inari gates, which our friend Colin had recommended, and despite the harrowing (for me) ride, it was totally worth it. If they had had snow monkeys, it would have been the best part of the trip, but they didn’t, so it gets second place.
We got there at about 8:30 in the morning, so it was extremely peaceful and there was almost no one there. By the time we left, there were tons of crowds coming in, so if you ever go to Kyoto, it’s worth getting up early to get this place all to yourself.
The next stop was the Golden Pavilion, which is probably the most famous temple in Kyoto – with good reason! Mercifully, Lauren did not make me ride the bike there because it was a pretty long ride and I think I would have had a heart attack before we reached the temple. We took a cab instead, and our driver tried very hard to practice his English with us – the only cab driver we encountered the entire trip that spoke any English at all.
Cab driver: “From?” (I thought he said “Rome” and was extremely confused)
Us: “The United States”
Cab: “Ah yes, good!” (pause) “You are very beautiful!”
Us: “Oh, thank you so much!”
Cab: “High school?”
I feel like if you are going to tell someone they are beautiful and you are clearly a 50-year old man, your next question should not be “High school?” but I appreciate his efforts and I like to think maybe he meant “College?” or “Mature adult?” but experience tells me probably not.
By this point, the tourists were out in full force and the place was bustling with people. We were wishing for the peace and quiet of the Inari Gates, but it was still gorgeous.
We passed by tons of people, including a guy taking tons of selfies with his iPad while making all sorts of truly ridiculous faces. We were so inspired by his photo shoot that we decided to do one of our own. Thank you, selfie guy, because this is one of our favorite pictures of the entire trip.
And with that, we grabbed our luggage from the ryokan and bid Kyoto adieu. It was on to Yokohama to meet up with our military friends once again, because that seemed like a valid and safe idea.