Day 7 is a notable day not just because it’s the half-way mark of my trip in Japan, but because today was probably one of the first actual sunny days I’ve had this whole time! It’s great not carrying an umbrella everywhere.
Megumi-san made another wonderful breakfast for me, this time a stew and a meatloaf thing, nice and warm and hearty, along with another onigiri-to-go.
Today, I will go to Kyoto, which is close to Osaka but a bit over an hour away taking local light rail. It’s still a bit cloudy as I arrive, but the daylight is trying to peek through, as if it knows today is a special day worth illuminating.
I shuffle my way through a narrow alley cram packed with people heading to see the Fushimi Inari Shrine and the thousands of bright orange Torii gates that make the location famous. Kyoto itself is littered with temples and shrines, and this one is perhaps one of the most famous.
Street vendors are hawking various meats-on-sticks or confectionary delights. Languages all around range from Japanese and English to Mandarin, Spanish, German, French and Portuguese. So this is where all the other foreign tourists have been hiding!
I steel myself for the hike to come. 4+ km of paths winding into the hills behind the shrine with several hundred meters of elevation change. I’m in good shape, but the jacket gets to be a bit much after a while. The walkways are choked with people at the start, but gradually thin out as fewer and fewer people opt to embark on the full trek, but in the works of Charles Bukowski, “If you’re going to do it, go all the way.”
It’s calming to be on this hike, surrounded by shrines and spiritual constructions. There’s just something about “passing through a gate” that has a real tangible effect on my disposition, not just as a fun metaphor to think about. I’ve entered this vacation during a period of great uncertainty in my life. Uncertainty about my maturing career as an engineer. Uncertainty about my nascent career as a writer. “What do I desire?” I can hear the recording of Alan Watts’ voice asking me, but it’s a difficult question to answer.
Along the path there are periodically little waystations and shrines to leave offerings, make prayers, or just rest your feet and get a drink. As I sip on a bottle of green tea, I reflect on the trip so far. It is, in a sense, a pilgrimage for me. A way to see a new environment, speak a new language, meet new people, and if I’m very lucky… maybe even find some new answers to old questions. The hiking takes me through the wilderness for hours, giving me time to mull over life’s imponderables and enjoy the occasional view of the city proper off in the distance.
Eventually, the circle complete, I return to where I started. I quick fortifying snack of Megumi-san’s onigiri and a cold drink and I’m ready to venture forth once more. A few stops up the track lies another famous Kyoto landmark: Kiyomizu.
I really am lucky the cherry blossoms are late blooming this year, because they look resplendent in the sunlight around the temple grounds. There is a Japanese idiom “To jump from the stage of Kiyomizu” which means “to set forth” (Thanks Love Hina manga for teaching me that one!). Apparently a number of people have literally tried to make the leap, but not all of them survived.
As the daylight fades, I step into a tiny bar along the alleyway leading down away from Kiyomizu. I make more friends there and enjoy some good brews! A traveling group of friends comprised of a Canadian, an American, and a couple from Dubai.
I also get a chance to practice my Japanese with the lovely bartender, Misato-chan! It’s probably the longest conversation I’ve had in (poorly spoken) Japanese all trip, but Misato speaks some English too, and it’s a great way to fill in the gaps. Practicing speaking is also a big confidence booster, or maybe it’s just the alcohol talking. I ask if Misato-chan has a boyfriend, but sadly the answer is yes. We all have a laugh about it though, and it’s a fine moment to remember from my quick trip in Kyoto.
The air temperature is dropping quickly as the sun begins to set, so I grab a hot bowl of Udon on my way back to the train station before calling it a day. The only people in this restaurant are foreigners: myself, a German couple, and an Australian father with his young twin boys.
Tomorrow, I will go to either Nara, or Kobe. I can’t decide, even now as I’m about to head out the door. We’ll see if a cup of coffee can shed some enlightenment.
Until next time, cheers!