Two months in Kyoto

April 18-June 9, 2007
(Ayako is a pseudonym given out of respect for this person's identity)

How do I sum up 2 months? Wow! This was the most intense 2 months of my 26 months in Japan! It was tough. It was painful. It was dispiriting. It was demoralizing. But it was also a rush. A fantastic voyage of real travel, and an assessment of my emergency ingenuity. A pungent experience of local generosity. A test of me, those I encountered, and sometimes their families.

Kyoto Train Station - the modern architectural marvel of Kyoto

Where to start? First, there was Cara. I have to admit, I wasn't too sure about her when we first met. She was the host I had planned on staying with for 2 or 3 days as I passed through Kyoto on my (previously well-funded) bicycle trip. She had to cancel the first night because her grandmother was visiting, but after that night at Hiro's apartment, Cara welcomed me into her home. Cara is a strong spirit. I'm not very spiritual at all. Neither in the traditional sense - I'm an atheist - nor in the more modern sense - I don't do crystals, cleansing teas, or any of that jazz. And as soon as I met Cara, I was almost overwhelmed by how intense she was. She seemed super smart, focused, and seemed to have thought through every angle before she even openned her mouth. She's also pretty honest. One of the first things she said to me was that she had her doubts about hosting me at all.

But learning how to understand others from their perspective is an important skill and practice when traveling and staying with families and people in foreign lands. I soon learned how acceptionally welcoming yet critical Cara is. While this sounds like a paradox, Cara pulls it off, and it's amazing.

I'm not usually too docile, but I let Cara take me under her wing in a way I'm not sure I've ever done. She not only housed me, and fed me for my first 2 weeks, but she taught me "how to fish for myself." She had been around the block in Kyoto, and her insights into how to find jobs, where to advertise as an English teacher, how to get around, and even where to meet my next guardian angel, were invaluable. Yes, she was my first guardian angel in kyoto. But I was to be pleasantly surprised by how many guardian angels Kyoto had waiting for me!

My first few days I made sure my family knew where I was, that my future hosts in Japan knew my plans were cancelled, and I started learning my way around Kyoto. I had arrived in Kyoto on Thursday night, and didn't even have my wits about me until I was at Cara's on Friday. By then any job opportunities were closed for the weekend. Cara had armed me with the Kansai Flea Market - a considerable job-listing and community news flyer in English. I circled all the jobs I'd call on Monday, and sent them an email to get them ready. It was time to take a break. I took a deep breath and Cara's wise advice to go to the International House (a beautiful community center and library for the international community). On Saturdays, they International House has a bunch of free culture classes that run throughout the day. I went for the Cultural arts and crafts class to start my day. I walked in and the arts and crafts class was sharing a room with the Japanese chess class. It was an amusing segregation of women surrounded by fabric swaths in the arts and crafts section, and tables of men sitting at stark foldable tables staring at what looked like complex wooden checkers games. There was a quiet uproar when I answered that I was there for the arts and crafts.

In that class I made some business card holders (because everyone in Japan has business cards) out of old kimono and school milk cartons. Cool! I gave one to Cara and the other to Ayako the next day. At the end of class, a man came up to me and asked where I was from. When i told him I was from Boston, he got excited and informed me that Boston is Kyoto's sister city! We got to talking and he wanted to introduce me to some people. When I told him a little about my bad luck, he insisted I come with him to lunch. But first we had to pick up his son from kindergarden. It was a funny situation, because in America no one would ever just meet someone and within 2 minutes, invite them to meet their family, and come to lunch with them. It was a surprise, but as I said, a pleasant surprise. Enter gaurdian angel #2 - Hiro. I got in Hiro's car and he asked me a lot of questions as we drove to his son's kindergarden. He was a little suspicious, and wanted to get some obvious suspicions laid to rest before really offering to help. Was I religious? Was I really from Boston? Where was I staying and how could I afford it? By the time we got to the school, he was reasonably satisfied, and understood a lot more about me and my whole story. Kindergarten was just letting out, and I had just finished 2 years of dealing with kids this age, so I felt right at home talking to the curious kids, and making sure not to make anyone cry. His son, Taiki, as well behaved, and happy to share a cute song about the street names in Kyoto. You can listen to it here.

Kyoto Tower looks more like a small space needle than its more famous cousin, Tokyo Tower

Night scene in magical Gion

Back alleys of Gion

Poster of 2 maiko and their geisha mentor

Poster advertising the upcoming performance of the maiko in the middle

Back alleys of Gion

The Gion temple

Climbing up into the attic of a temple for an all-night chant

Hiro and Taiki after our first lunch

Delicious peanut powdered machi

Extraordinary spices in their traditional bamboo containers

Hand made macha wisks

Dried fish snacks at the farmers market

After begging my way into the Kiyomizu-dera Temple

A hurdy gurdy player in Japan!?

The imperial palace

In the emporer's chambers

Imperial Japanese gardens

Traditional tea at the world famous tea house, Ippodo!

More nice tea at Ippodo

I took 2 trips to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Nara. The first time I just checked out the park (these pics), but the second time I explored some of the old parts of the city itself. The park is definitely the highlight.

Todai-ji Temple, the world's largest awooden structure.

Inside Todai-ji, there was this huge pillar. They say if you can fit through a hole cut through it, you will have a long life.

One of the things people come to see are the wild deer roaming all around. They have learned to trust humans because of all the school children who feed them all day.

I took many trips to nerbye Osaka. At first i was going there for interviews by train (1 hour), but then I figured out if I biked along the river on the bike trail I could get there in just over an hour, and it became my favorite long-distance ride. I ended up going to see the 'Tour de Japan,' to deal with my Chinese visa, to plan my fully-loaded ride to the Korea ferry, and sometimes just to check it out and be a tourist. While Tokyo is amazing, and really shouldn't be compared to any other place, I think Osaka is probably a better place to live and work. It's got lots of cool places, and is much more managable. THese first Osaka pics are from a trip I took by train for an interview and ended up just wandering around afterward.

Osaka jo (castle) from outside its walls

Namba Archade in Osaka

Back alleys of Osaka's Namba district

Back in Kyoto:

Ayako at one of the many shrines she took me to

The wonderful tori tunnels of Fushimi Inari Shrine

Just like Memoirs of a Geisha!

Aoi Festival

Ayako got another request for a tour by Darren, a Couchsurfer from Scotland

Fenway Park Bar... in Kyoto!

Mr. Nakamura and one of his employees have lunch at his house

Ninna-ji Temple. One of Mr. Nakamura's dogs almost had the same hair color as me.

A real tea ceremony Ayako took me to

The woman in the background is looking at the markings of the bowl. The bowl is actually what the tea ceremony is all about. It is usually an important, and very old bowl with lots of stories. Before going into this room everyone waits in a waiting room where there is a book with the whole history of the bowl. So when they go in for the tea (served communally out of the same bowl), they feel they are becoming a part of history, or experiencing something older than themselves. So when they pass the bowl around it's not about sipping the tea (actually you can only have a tiny bit if it's to last for everyone) - but rather the bowl.

...but for me it was about the wagashi! Interestingly, if you go to a ceremony, it's expected that you bring a special napkin (probabaly made FOR wagashi) so when this plate comes by, and you take one, you have somewhere to put it. I can't remember, but I think we were supposed to bring our own chopsticks too.

Noh play

Tenryū-ji Temple up in Arashiyama (one of the nicest places in Kyoto)

Sagano Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama

A small local festival I came across on my bike ride to Osaka. These happen all year all around Japan. They are REALLY into festivals.

The Tour de Japan in Osaka

Jessica! We worked together for the previous year outside Tokyo, and she was taking a tour of Japan at the same time I was before returning to Australia. This girl is LOADS of fun! It was good to see an old friend in this city of strangers.

Jessica's friends

Kyoto National Museum

Riding the Kintetsu Line

Fire Ramen! Known as... Baka-men to the owner for some reason. Baka means stupid.

Only about a month into the trip (about a year after I bought the bike), the handlebar tape had to be replaced.

Heian Jingu (Shrine)

Heian Jingu's Torii

The Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavillion) in the Shōkoku-ji (Temple)

They serve this simple plum blossom tea with real gold leaf ("from the pavillion") inside. It was actually some of the most delicious tea Ive ever had - and very pretty.

This is some shaved ice (also at Shōkoku-ji) with green tea flavoring. The balls are not leechi, but rather chewy desert balls made from pounded rice paste, called dango (like mochi). It looks better than is is.

Famous okonomiyaki restaurant. This stuff is really good!

More okonomiyaki

Edible charcoal snacks! Yes this is actual charcoal that you eat. No, I don't mean it just looks like charcoal. There are peanuts inside, and the charcoal has almost no taste, but it has a hard-yet-granualr texture as you'd expect. I loved them!

I can't remember what this is, but it might have been donburi. Specifically oyako donburi. Oyako means 'mother and daughter,' and in this case is chicken and egg. Interesting!

That shirt was given to me by Hiro, who took pity on me when I arrived to find work in Kyoto for 2 months with nothing but bike jerseys and one normal shirt. His wife gave me a bunch of shirts he no longer fit into. SO nice!! Hiro really was one of my heros while in Kyoto!

This was an awesome find. Ayako showed me a bar where everything was just $1. The beer, and these 2 dishes cost me $3. JUST what I needed! There was something wierd about it, like it had no hours and no customers, but as long as it was open, you could get super cheap food and drink. Later on, I discovered a liquor shop right around the corner that openned as a bar at night. You had to buy the bottle, but they sold it to you at the normal liquor shop price. It was PACKED. It was also something like 500 years old!

The nightengale floors of the Nijō Castle squeak as you walk on them. It was a security system designed to protect from ninjas and otherwise silent attacks. Cool!

Though I usually slept on the floor of an office, at the end of my stay Ayako turned crazy, and stole all my bags and stuff from the office. She locked it all (and herself) in her apartment and refused to come out or give it back. I had to call the police, but then the company (and apartment building) owner made her give it all back. He then told me it would be better to stay with him at his parent's house for a night or two, and no longer stay in the office (which was next door to Ayako's apartment). Crazy. This was my nice new digs at his house for a couple nights. Thanks Mr. Nakamura!

My last two nights Mr. Nakamura would be out of town on business, so I could not stay with him. I didn't want to trouble Cara (though we had stayed in touch), or either of the Hiro's, so I decided to camp. I scoped out the best places to sleep where I'd be out of the rain. My first night I ended up sleeping under a bridge along the river. It was a tiny bit sketch, and completely visable from the other side of the river. I just didn't want police botherng me at night - who does? On my last night, i decided to camp out wherever all the homless people sleep. I went to the park where I was told the homeless slept, and found a nice BBQ picnic shelter where I set up my tent and got excited about Korea. The next morning I'd have to start early and bike to Osaka to catch the ferry to Busan, South Korea!!



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