I must confess I was quite nervous about this adventure. It was going to be my first time travelling alone and it was to a place that was probably as far away from home as I could go plus I couldn’t speak a single word of their language. On top of this, I didn’t have a Lonely Planet so for the modern traveler that already spelled a bad start. Doreen had been really helpful in the build-up to the trip including changing money for me, printing documents and taking me on dry runs to the Hong Kong Airport bus. She had also fire fought the torrents of “WHAT?!…rest of the conversation in angry sounding Chinese” when I announced my travel plans to my school (I’m not an idiot, this was compulsory). I was armed with my passport, a suitcase and an itinerary that Kieran had kindly helped me put together.
I landed at 5:30 am at Osaka and got the bus to Kyoto. Before this I was the subject of the most thorough customs inspection of my life! Most people got asked a couple of questions but they obviously took a great interest in me. A lone black female traveler with a British passport complete with a Chinese residence permit, they must have thought that this was their lucky day! I’m sure someone was on speed dial to the producers of the TV show ‘Airport’. I was questioned for what felt like an eternity about why I lived in China, my motivation for visiting Japan, my friend’s motivation for living in Japan, and the itinerary of my visit whilst one officer searched my suitcase – including unzipping the lining – and the other officer disappeared with my passport for a while. Once I crossed the border, I was greeted by the rising sun. Everything was shrouded in mist. On the road we passed clusters of urban life nestled at the foot of breathtakingly vast and dominating expanses of mountains.
The bus dropped me off outside a hotel and I was left to get my bearings. Although many may think it questionable, I have found that the best way to find places when travelling is to follow other people you suspect may be heading where you want to go. I spotted a woman across the street lugging a large suitcase and decided to follow her in the hope that she was heading to the main train station. Obviously it worked because it’s a great technique. At the station I got my first taste of the sheer politeness, helpfulness and grace of the Japanese people whilst trying to buy a ticket for the bullet train, (a.k.a the Shink for those in the know). Everyone formed an orderly queue. The man behind the window panicked at first when he saw me and realised he would have to speak English but he smiled and patiently joined me in the art of mime until he figured out what it was I wanted. Giving me my ticket he smiled, bowed, and waved me goodbye as I set out to find someone to follow to my hostel. This was going to be a very relaxing and enjoyable holiday away from China and its contrasting people.
I spent two days wondering the streets of Kyoto in awe. This city is an example of ‘old meets new’ where the ‘old’ stands proud. There are several narrow streets along which sit traditional style houses with sliding doors and Zen gardens. These rub shoulders with the main arteries that are populated with skyscrapers. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a grand temple or shrine will appear in the middle of the street, interrupting the modern skyline. Everybody in this city cycles everywhere and there is a French boulangerie on almost every street. It was like coming home.
I visited several shrines and temples over the two days: The Golden Pavilion, Nijo Castle with its ingenious defence system of Nightingale floors that date back to the 17th Century, Fushimi-Inari shrine to walk through the famous Torii gates, Kiyomizu-dera with its amazing views over Kyoto, and the streets of Gion for a spot of Geisha hunting. My definite highlights were finding the Tainai-meguri at Kiyomizu-dera and Sanjusangendo-hall.
The Tainai-meguri is, symbolically, the womb of a female bodhisattva and is essentially a sacred underground cave. You climb down a set of rickety wooden stairs and are plunged into darkness with nothing but a trail of beads attached to the wall to guide you through. During the walk you are meant to clear your mind and focus on the wish you want the bodhisattva to grant. After a while you reach a large illuminated stone in the middle of the room which you spin several times whilst making your wish. When you emerge from the darkness you should be of clearer mind and purer heart. Whether or not it worked, I guess only time will tell.
Sanjusangendo-hall was breath-taking. I had got lost that afternoon and it was approaching closing time. Feeling a little dejected I decided to give it one last try and managed to arrive in time for last admission. From the outside it looked like a very ordinary hall made from dark panelled wood. However, when you enter you are shrouded in peaceful low lighting. There are monks floating around tending to burning incense that fills the long hall. The length of the hall is filled with 1000 statues of Kannon crowned by a gigantic statue of the same deity that is so striking I felt physically frozen to the spot. There is a certain serenity to the place that is deeply moving. I left feeling very calm and went in search of dinner.
I had read about a noodle shop recommended Fordor’s called Honke Owariya. This restaurant had been making noodles for the emperors of Japan since 1465. By this time it was dark and all I had was the name of the road which I found without issue. However, this seemed to be the longest road in the world and after about 15 minutes of walking I was convinced I had missed it or taken a wrong turning. But then I was saved once again by my sketchy travelling technique. Behind me was a lost-looking couple holding an iPad who were eyeing up each building on the street. I slowed down to let them pass me so I could peak over their shoulder to see what was on the iPad and sure enough they were on Google maps. I guessed they were looking for the same restaurant and since I didn’t have so much as a mobile phone, I decided to hedge my bets and follow them. Now the danger of my following technique is looking like a disturbed stalker especially at night. This is probably what the couple thought of me because I kept quite close behind them and then stopped to tie my shoe when they stopped to ask for directions in a shop. When I heard the man speaking fluent Japanese, I knew I was on to a winner. Needless to say, the technique worked again and I found the 530 year old noodle shop. The kitchen was about to close so I had to sweet-talk/mime the waitress into letting me stay and eat quickly. The long endeavour was of course worth it.