When I'd think of Japan, I'd picture cherry blossoms, Buddhist pagodas, geisha and what was probably the most delectable sushi on the planet. Likely because these were the images inscribed in my mind from history books and travel guides.
Fascinated for as long as I can remember by what I perceived to be Japanese culture, Tokyo and its neighboring cities remained somewhere at the bottom of my "travel wish-list," below jungles, rainforests and various Natural Wonders of the World.
That is, until my friend moved to Kawagoe to teach English last year and presented me with the opportunity to visit. Suddenly, I found Japan at the top of that list and a fairly expensive plane ticket in my hand (well, e-mail).
I'd initially planned to visit just after the New Year, but because I was partial to skipping through cherry blossoms over licking icicles, I decided to muster some patience and wait until the weather was warmer. I also recruited a travel companion and dear friend, for what would become our co-journey to "find some inner peace" amidst her chaotic new life as an attorney and my long hiatus from yoga practice.
This concept seemed laughable to me, as my feet turned numb inside my rain-soaked boots and I sipped a piping-hot cappuccino inside Café du Mon, where we've come to seek refuge from the gusty, flip-your-umbrella-inside-out winds and torrential downpours in Kyoto.
Mind you, this is where, half-way through our trip, we've traveled about 400 kilometers by the Shinkansen (bullet train, or "Frisbee train," as we called it because it didn't seem to move that fast) to visit the most beautiful of temples, lavish of gardens and meditate beneath the Momiji (Japanese maple) trees. We figured, "What's another few hundred bucks on the travel bill? This is surely the place to find peace."
I was also hoping to see some cherry blossoms, because the ones in the city had already fallen from their branches and since blown away in an unseasonably early summer.
We had arrived in Kyoto the previous afternoon, after a nearly missed train ride — everything is printed in Katakana symbols and despite being a tourist attraction, few natives speak English — through the scenic countryside that took us past Mt. Fuji just in time to taxi it to the wrong hotel with a similar name, and then hoof it with our luggage 20 blocks to the correct one before we called it a day.
We practically danced downstairs the next morning, dressed for the blazing heat we'd arrived in — right out the lobby door into the rain and chillier temps. While my friend had the good sense to cough up 500 yen for an umbrella at the corner store before hopping into our cab, I must have thought that by not purchasing one, I'd somehow convince the rain gods to take a rest.
And that is why, after only a few minutes of touring the town, my hair was drenched, mascara dripped off my chin and I was water-skiing in my shoes. If this joint had served alcohol, I'd have numbed the rest of my body with hot sake.
We decided to order lunch — breakfast was a whole hour ago, after all — and wait out the rain. We scrolled through images on my Canon of our journey thus far.
Images of crowded bodies littering food and shopping markets, the Sensoji Temple, Shinto shrines and friends rendezvousing in the park of Asakusa, as well as the funky artists' market in Shibuya illustrate our first day in Tokyo, where we took the train in from Kawagoe. My first comparison to downtown Tokyo was to Times Square, only denser. And strangely, no one throws profanities or punches as they perpetually shove each other out of the way. In fact, amidst the overwhelming chaos, everyone is seemingly calm and respectful.
I was also surprised to find that the flouncy dresses, platform heels and heavily rimmed eyes I thought were reserved for Harashuku girls are actually a popular trend on these streets. I suddenly felt foolish to have expected a pool of khakis and oxford shirts, like those worn by my conservative Asian friends in the States. These people are hip. And the women appeared to be downright fashion rebels, taking a stand against any existing female oppression in a male-dominated society.
I'd already learned through some cultural material I'd read on the plane that I wouldn't be seeing any geisha — the numbers have dwindled from 80,000 in the early part of the 20th century to maybe 2,000 in select regions — and many of my other preconceptions are quickly revealed as misconceptions. The sushi, however, is the best I've ever had. I'm also fond of Umeboshi and soba, which I've tried for the first time.
Day two was attempt one at finding peace and relaxation, as we traveled to Kamakura to visit more temples and The Great Buddha. It's hard to tap into your spirituality when you're distracted by a game of bumper cars with tourists on every side, but I was able to admire the architecture of the great halls, pagodas and gates, and the air of spirituality that lingered there.
I had hoped I could nestle my body against the giant Buddha in undisturbed tranquility afterward. And so did 4,000 other people, who I had to crowd-surf just to get within 20 feet of him. So much for that. I further contemplated in awe how the Japanese people remain so calm and centered on a daily basis.
So there I was in Kyoto, in my quest to connect with something profound — or at this juncture, just something other than people.
I decided that because this may be my only time in this magnificent city, I'm not going to spend it in a coffee shop. I'm going to do what I came here for: see the Golden Temple, stroll barefoot through Nijo Castle and meander through the gardens around the Imperial Palace.
I asked the owner of the café — in my best attempt to speak Japanese — if she knows where I can buy an umbrella. Instead, she gave me her own umbrella from behind the counter and a smile that warmed my heart. I am again amazed at the kindness of the people of Japan. I gave her a hug, which I immediately realize from the look of surprise on her face and those of her waitstaff that the embrace is not a cultural norm, but she seemed happy to accept one from me anyway.
I left the café, back into the rain, which felt lighter even though it was still dumping buckets. We head to The Golden Temple, which doesn't look at all illuminated like it does in the photos, beneath the sun and blue skies.
It was even more beautiful in the rain, as the droplets danced on the surface of the Temple's pond, creating a montage of expanding rings. The lush surrounding forests also have a mystical feel, and despite crowds of people moving in every direction, it's actually quite, well, peaceful.