2007-09-22 Kyoto

We packed our stuff and went to Hommachi station, took the subway to Shin-Osaka, reserved seats for the next HIKARI Shinkansen to Kyoto, found our platform, queued up, got in, got out, and found ourselves in Kyoto. It was hot.

Very hot, actually.

We went to the tourist information, got a map, went to the bus ticket office and got two prepaid cards worth 1100¥. It turns out that we probably won’t need that much, since every bus trip costs 220¥, and the day pass costs 500¥.

As soon as we arrived on platform A2, bus no. 205 arrived and we boarded. At the time we didn’t know how pricing worked, since we had missed that section in our book (again) and were nervous. Where was the little piece of paper? It took us a minute to understand what was going on.

We got off at the Kyoto City Hall station, didn’t see a city hall, and started looking for our hotel. Hm. Walk, walk, walk... Circling around... We’re at the city hall! There was some sort of speech by a politician in front of a small group of people, a little band played, cheerleaders started marching, and we got bored. Where was our hotel? We were not in a hurry because our earliest check-in was 16:00 and it was still before noon. That’s how early we were! Knowing where we were made the rest easy. We stayed at the Nishiyama Ryokan. When we came in, the guy behind the counter pointed at the floor and said something friendly. I was confused. Take off my shoes? I started taking off my shoes. No – please come to the counter. Ah. Claudia says: “It’s called over-adaptation. Japanese-looking people point at your feet and you start taking off your shoes. They must be having fun.”

We deposited our bags, and left for the Imperial Palace. It’s closed on week-ends, but the park is nice. Our book says that Japanese people are only allowed inside on one week every year. Tourists can go in all through the year. That seems hardly fair.

At the park restaurant, Claudia ate Kitsune-Don, and I ate cold Udon noodles. I forget what they were called. The book says they are called Kamage Udon. But I faintly remember a four-letter word starting with a Z. Oh well. I liked them. Other people ate them as well. Eating them requires lots of slurping. And everybody slurped like their lives depended on it. As slurping is considered very bad manners in Switzerland, I tried slurping very quietly. I feel like the Japanese who don’t know how to properly eat Fondue. They drink inappropriate drinks, or throw all the bread into the cheese, or do other strange things. And here I am trying to quietly slurp noodles that requires lots of slurping.

At a quarter past two, we decided to walk over to Nijō Castle. I was very impressed by the expansive rooms and the nice pond in the garden.

We returned to the Ryokan at around four. I like the small streets, the dark wooden houses, and the contrast between them and the artifacts of modern civilization such as the omnipresent vending machines and power cables.

One thing that we noticed was that there are lots of bicycles, but they don’t seem to like driving on the roads. They share space with pedestrians. And boardwalks are rare, too. This is very unlike Switzerland where practically every little road has boardwalks, and bicycles drive on the roads or on special bicycle lanes. And green minded people want even more rights and extra lanes for bicycles because they feel that bicycles encroaching on pedestrians weakens the case against cars.

The moment of truth had arrived: Would there be an attendant helping us undress? Would she move through the room on her knees after having served us some green tea? Would there be a fantastic garden to see from the public bath? Would the locals leave the bath as we stepped into the water? All these things were mentioned in our book, and we didn’t know what to expect.

It turns out that the experience wasn’t all that weird. We walk around in our street shoes. Only when we get into our room do we take them off.

Some things remain strange. There are toilet slippers for use in the toilet only. Coming from Switzerland, one wonders: Is the floor not clean enough? Do they wash the slippers more often than the floor? Visiting far away countries is an excellent exercise – it dislodges the mind, throws you out of your set ways.

Little things, like the bicycles. We also noted that many had brakes that were in a bad need of maintenance. When the rider used the brakes, the screeching noise reminded us of dentists and ultrasonic hammers. We also noted that pedestrians have to wait far longer for a green light than we’re used to in Switzerland. And there’s constant acoustic pollution. We were sitting on a bench in a park near the toilet and heard a constant electronic bing bong sound. No apparent source, nor any apparent reason. There is a constant stream of messages from the loudspeakers in buses, trains, and the subway. The next station is ... this is the ... use the exit on the left ... please alert a crew member if you notice anything suspicious or any unattended luggage ... in Japanese, and in English. And a constant stream of ads on a public square, in the shopping arcades, even the pickup truck that seems to be collecting old computer monitors, old cardboard, and a few lamps has a loudspeaker announcing that it is coming, what it is for, and what you should be doing, as it slowly cruises up and down the roads. And at night, rock bands and singer songwriters set up amplifiers, loudspeakers, unpack their instruments, assemble the drum kit, and start playing. As we don’t understand, it adds to the exotic background, just as it did in Bladerunner (1991). But if I understood Japanese, if I worked here, perhaps I’d go nuts. Or numb. Or I’d do like so many people we’ve seen: Buy a portable audio player and forget about the rest of the world.

Anyway... public bath! No problem. The first time we went, both Claudia and I were alone. Time enough to experiment. Squat on that little stool, wash carefully, use lots of soap, rinse thoroughly, sink into the hot water, enjoy the view of wet moss, water dripping from black stones, a stone lantern in the mellow paper light... Wash again, rinse again, soak again... And again... How wonderful life is.

We go out to eat Sushi again. Kaiten-sushi – with the little assembly line carrying the plates through the entire room. This time it wasn’t as great as back in Osaka. But compared with Switzerland, it was incredibly cheap. Maybe we should try one of the high-end places next. Or have dinner at the Ryokan. We have not yet decided. It would cost 7000¥ per person here at the Ryokan.

We walked through the little streets not far from our hotel: South of Sanjo-dori, east of Teramachi-dori... The area around Pontocho-dori, Yamato oji (Nawate) dori, along Kawaramachi-dori. The shopping arcades were closing, restaurants were winding down, and by ten o’clock, it was either growing lonely, or full of drunk teens, or clearly “Pinku” territory (what we would call a red light district). I don’t like the little pimp-wannabes in Japan. They are practically invisible in Switzerland, although Claudia tells me they do exist and are certainly not friendlier than the kids we see here.

Anyway, we walked back to our Ryokan, and I went for another bath. There was a Japanese guy around my age taking a bath at the same time, and he didn’t leave as I stepped into the water to soak, so I guess he must have been happy with my lathering and rinsing...

I’ve never been so clean. My skin will probably fall off in a day or two.



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