There is an English idiom, ‘like riding a bike,’ that I got to try out in a few ways on this trip. I was literally riding a bike around rice paddies and down busy streets with opposite traffic laws, and at one point thinking it wise to try and film an instagram video cruising on my one-speed through the suburbs of Kyoto and realizing as I brought the screen up to eye level that a semi was silently sneaking up on me. One of many “oops nearly died just then” moments of the trip.
Then there was map reading. A lost art. I love maps. Always have. I remember getting the Thomas Brothers map out of the backseat of the car to look up where everyone lived whenever we got the roster for swim or soccer teams, and trying to figure out how long it would take to bike there and if there were any really big streets to cross. I was so thrilled when I started driving and my Aunt Penny, Queen of remembering some offhand comment you make and getting you a Christmas gift in reference to it, gave me my first very own Thomas Brothers map book of Contra Costa County.
When I first started backpacking after college, all we had (and I still have tucked away somewhere) were maps we’d purchased at Barnes and Noble and the ones we’d filched off of copies of Lonely Planet to make our way through Central and South America. We highlighted places we thought we should go and made it to most of them, leaving a trail of broken hearts and empty beer bottles and well-worn hammocks in our wake, didn’t we, girls?
Now with Google maps, I hardly think at all about anticipating where I’m going. But I was worried about the SIM card I’d purchased, so resolved to map it up as much as possible around Japan. It was fun, actually, spreading the maze out over the table, trying to figure out with my lack of Japanese and my host’s minimal English how one could walk, bike, bus, train, and metro one’s way around a sprawling city.
There is such a culture to public transportation that you need to somehow divine in every new place. It was so fun to figure out the transport, to mark with hope and misplaced confidence the paths I wanted to take to get to a given destination . . . and then end up miles down the road in the rain. But it only happened a few times before I got the hang of it. I had purchased the Japan Rail Pass for seven days before I’d arrived to Japan, and while it was cool, I actually lost money on the whole thing. But because my finances in HK have been so topsy turvy, it was actually smart in the end to not have another thing to pay cash for. As modern as Japan is, cash is still queen. I was only able to use my credit card TWICE in nine days – one forward-thinking hostel and one touristy stall that sold geisha socks . . . so that’s some advice.
Japanese transportation is SO organized, and all the drivers and officers were very friendly and helpful if I stood looking at a map or a machine too long. There are also a lot of polite signs to tell you how to best behave on transport. This was helpful to remind me how to manage my backpack when it got crowded, instead of swinging around too quickly and knocking an old lady out. Favs – you can make change ON THE BUS in a MACHINE without looking like an idiot. Hop on that, Hong Kong.
When I could, I latched on to anyone I heard speaking a foreign language I understood, and hoped they were going to the same tourist destination I was. This worked for some of the big temples. Me, a scattered few foreigners, and a thousands Japanese students on field trips descended with our Pikachu umbrellas and ponchos onto the Golden Pavilion and other famous sites. Did you know it’s hard to take a selfie in front of a famous place if you also have to be holding an umbrella because it’s raining quite hard and you wear glasses? Damn my eyes. Luckily people were nice enough to offer and I have like three whole pictures that are not selfies that I am also in that prove I went to Japan.
After some tramping around the city, I went to the Nishiki and Teramachi Markets to browse some insane food stalls (I honestly don’t even know what I was looking at half the time. But they can put any kind of seafood on a stick.). I soaked up free wifi at Starbucks and tried to dry out, wandered in and out of libraries, the ubiquitous temples (even mid-mall), graphic Manga displays, cheesy geisha trinkets, poorly translated Japanese character shirts, bling-ed out cell phone case stalls.
I found a sushi train restaurant, and I don’t eat seafood, but I will eat tame sushi. Like, no tentacles and I am very happy if there is cream cheese or avocado on it. Very excited about wasabi. It was such a cool experience – there was a hot water tap at each seat to make your own tea, and you kept your stack of plates like trophies and then paid by the plate, which were organized by color according to how complicated the sushi was.
That night I wandered and slushed through the rain soaked streets of Gion, the traditional Geisha district, with a thousand other tourists. It looks like old movies with swinging red lanterns, bamboo curtains, low roofs, wooden slat buildings. I went to a performance that very quickly showed some traditional Japanese culture – tea ceremony, puppetry, drumming, stringed instruments, and a Maiko dancing. It was a lovely hour out of the rain to see things I’d probably otherwise never see.
Other things that came back like riding a bike were staying in a hostel, living out of a bag, eating disgusting food because it’s cheap, and never meeting a stranger. I stayed in a little bunk pod in an up and coming hostel in Arashiyama that was easily some of the most uncomfortable few nights of my life, but everyone was so nice all around, and I could hear rain and crickets and sleep without air conditioning, so how could I really be mad?
My one cellmate that last night was a Chinese gal named Ha. She was an accountant by day and budding photographer by night. Through the miracle of hand signals we drank tea and exchanged our life “stories” and she gave me a lovely mask to sleep in as I was feeling sick.
We discussed the options on the remote control in the toilet, snuck mattresses and pillows off the unused beds to use on our own, hung her washed underwear all over the room to dry overnight, pranked the boys next door, crawled into our respective pods, whispered “good night!” and then never spoke to or saw each other again. And never will. Wild.
The next morning, slightly less sniffly (so maybe there is something to those face masks after all) I packed my pack by headlamp, wondering, as I always do when I travel, how items seem to somehow reproduce overnight and make it harder to zip the bag up, and then walked off into the dawning day to find a train that might take me to shinkansen or ‘bullet train’ that I wanted for Hiroshima.
If you haven’t heard it yet today and you need to – Stranger Things 2 is the greatest thing that has happened to television in a really long time. I finished the entire season in one day. It grew dark around me and I had to turn on night lights. It’s that good and scary.
Here are pictures of things I saw: