Packing for a 36-hour trip took all of 8 minutes, leaving plenty of time to celebrate Saturday night with friends in Hong Kong, my borrowed hometown. My trusty Fjallraven and I got to the Airport Express just past midnight.
I was still in disbelief the aircraft was headed to Japan. 16 hours earlier, I had no plans for the holiday weekend. Now, I was en route to the Land of the Rising Sun. Still didn’t have a plan, but aimed to do and see as many things as possible.
The stations were orderly and noiseless, much like all of Japan from what I encountered. I still don’t know, and never will, if the train to and from the airport qualified as the famed Shinkansen. My gut tells me no but I want to leave the chance open. Osaka to Kyoto station in under 80 minutes. I fell in and out of sleep with the sun on my face, a breeze on my shoulders throughout. I can’t remember what I saw along the way – it was mostly nondescript, could have been any train, in any city.
I took out ¥30000, which I think is ~$300USD. Even the convenience stores in Japan are a worthy stop, with their pop music soundtrack and rainbow color palette. After buying and applying SPF 50 to combat the sun’s unforgiving rays, I made my way to the nearest temple on my saved Google Map. I wouldn’t stop walking for the next 5 hours.
Traveling by foot allowed me to see more than just the sites. To see the houses, the street signs, the back alleyways. The roads were eerily deserted, the stores closed. Perhaps because it was still only 9 AM. The only sign of life I saw for the first mile was a baseball team out for a run. They couldn’t have been older than sixteen.
I soon discovered the repetitive drudge of sightseeing through temples. A momentous landmark, a storied past, falls victim to the plight of tourism and a process for keeping queues orderly despite massive crowds. New location, same system: pay an entrance fee, receive a pamphlet, take off your shoes, put away your camera, walk quietly but briskly through the visitation area, reflect with a prayer or brief meditative thought, exit through the gift shop.
Gold-flaked matcha tee, paper fans, kimono rentals, selfie sticks. One shop after another had promises of authentic regalia, and free samples for just about every edible dish.
The streets were packed but remained quiet. Sometimes, you could hear chanting from monks. I had to wonder if that was staged for visitor purposes. I have a lot of questions but no one to ask them to.
I couldn’t possibly stop in every temple or shrine. I selected my few visits mostly based on vista potential.
The Gion district was where I’d read you could encounter geisha and maiko in their trailing obi sashes and wooden platforms. Shinbashi dori, with a river running through it, was resplendent and pleasantly calm for being labeled “the most beautiful street in Japan.”
Teramachi shopping arcade provided me with the taste of Japanese shopping and entertainment I’d only before seen in movies. Bright overhead lights, anime character games and photo booths, dessert cafés contrasted against temples and paper lanterns.
I recharged with brown rice tea at this footbath cafe, five floors up from the chaos of the mall below.
Negiyaki is a thinner version of okonomiyaki, a Japanese savory pancake, which translates literally to “what you like grilled.”
overnight @ 9hr capsule
Shoes are checked at reception and you are provided with slippers and a locker key. Floors 2-5 are “Ladies Only” and the locker contained a shapeless grey muumuu, a towel and a toothbrush. The simple iconography throughout the hotel helped ease the language barrier.
I crawled up into my second floor capsule, shut the shade and slept for the soundest 10 hours of my life.
By Monday, I was skilled in navigating the crowds at the city’s most popular attractions. Kinkaku-ji housed relics of Buddha. I stopped on the souvenir street at a fortune dispenser and it told me to “work hard.”
Renting a bike was the single best decision of this short trip and it cost less than breakfast. I was free to ride any direction I pleased, and could change routes at will, without wasting any time. In a few minutes, I was transported from the bustling city streets to the suburban sprawl. I pulled my trusty cruiser companion over to make her take a photo with the mountain range as a backdrop.
Arashiyama has a monkey park and also one of the best views of Kyoto from above. Signs everywhere warned tourists to hide their food, as the monkeys are notorious for getting handsy.
My 2016 resolution is to not buy anything new, save food and a few other consumables. This leads me to replace the traditional souvenirs with edible treats and standard toiletries. The colors and design variations of the Japanese brands makes this shopping just as much fun, while remaining inexpensive and far less time consuming. I boarded the plane after the sun set and was asleep in Hong Kong less than 6 hours later.