Alone in Kyoto

06:57 Paul Robinson 0 Comments

I woke up on the night bus, just as it pulled into Kyoto Station. I was surprised because I'd managed to actually get a whole nights sleep during the journey. As the early morning rain fell, I made my way to the hostel and  I arrived even  before the receptionist turned up on his folding bicycle. He told me I'd have to come back at 3pm to check-in. He was a bit of a douche and amazingly, that was the first time I'd experienced less than perfect service in Japan.

Day 1

I was really looking forward to visiting the  Nijo Castle. The rain was now bucketing it down but my spirits weren't to be dampened. The castle was originally built in 1603 by the first Tokugawa Shogun, one of my favourite historical blood-spillers.
In the entrance to the castle, I had to exchange my boots for a pair of slippers which were a couple of sizes to small. The Japanese have evidently small feet. The slippers were used to protect the 'nightingale floorboards'. Each wooden panel was designed to squeak when stepped on, in order to prevent people sneaking about inside the castle. I set off to explore the castle, with my borrowed slippers flying off my feet every third step.

Inside the castle, weak sunlight penetrated through the paper walls. Rain drummed on the roof. Before I could stop myself, my imagination exploded with images of stone-faced guards, ladies-in-waiting and a moody Shogun stomping through the corridors. His slippers probably didn't fall off though.

I loved visiting the castle. It may not be the largest or the most ornate but it completely captured my imagination. I loved how the movable paper walls allowed the building to morph to suit the Shoguns demands. I loved the cunning design and the beautiful decoration. I was captivated. I would have happily spent hours in the castle feeding my imagination by taking photos and drawing, but they were both forbidden. Nevertheless, a great place to visit.

Next up was the Manga Museum. The museum housed three floors of manga in English and Japanese, galleries and a really informative exhibition. There were tonnes of kids in there with piles of books by their side, happy to read all day long. It was refreshing to see kids without a computer screen under their nose. The place was really comfortable, so I packed a couple of books under my arm and joined in. It was basically the ideal library. I remember my Dad taking us to the library as a kid - it is such a shame libraries are dying out across the UK. One day in the not-so-distant future, Japanese kids will be visiting the new 'British Museum of Libraries'.

Day 2

Japan is famous for hot-springs. Onsen, or public baths, seem to be an obsession in Japan. I cycled to the most famous onsen within the city limits, Funaoka onsen, to check it all out. Throughout the ride, my mind raced with all the onsen rules of behaviour I'd read about. "do this; don't do that; don't even dream of doing this". Etiquette is a big thing in Japan. I wasn't too worried about being balls-naked; I was more concerned about being shouted at for stepping in a pool with the wrong foot, whilst being balls-naked.
I paid the 400 yen and went into the changing room. On the walls there were some carvings of questionable taste which  depicted the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. A few wrinkled old men sat on the benches. I quickly undressed, threw all my clothes into the locker and searched for the showers. Everything I had read stressed how important it was to shower thoroughly before entering the pools. Being unclean in the water was extremely rude. I made a real effort to be seen washing and then stepped into the first pool. I made my way through the different baths, from the outside pool of freezing water to a pool so hot my skin turned pink.

I'd been slowly simmering for about half and hour when my heart began to sink. I couldn't remember where I'd placed my locker key. The locker had everything in it. The key wasn't tied to me and I couldn't see it anywhere. I had no way of explaining my situation and I because really conscious of just how naked I was. I searched high and low for the key. I'm telling you now, there is very fine line between scanning for a key and looking like you are after an eyeful of cock. I couldn't find my key anywhere.

I had to put it out of my mind. I wouldn't be back in Japan any time soon and I wanted to enjoy the onsen. I reminded myself that I was in Japan - nobody was going to run off with my possessions. I was sat in some herbal pool, when a local guy started talking to me. He was the first (and only) Japanese to strike up a meaning conversation during my whole time in Japan. The Japanese are polite but do not make a great effort to speak to foreigners. It was really nice to chat. We spoke about the conflict with China obviously, then we spoke about the differences between our own countries and our careers and families. Eventually we came onto the subject of religion. It turned out he was a Jehovah Witness. In Japan! I couldn't believe it. They get bloody everywhere. He started giving me the sales pitch and I decided I'd had enough bathing for one day. I really enjoyed speaking to him but I wasn't quite ready to accept God into my life.

I went into the changing room with nothing more than a Man United towel around my waist and blind hope that my key had magically appeared. Sat on the bench, one of the old wrinklies passed me my locker key. I had never felt so relieved. Was that golden light above his head a halo?

Day 3

Of all the classic promotional shots you see of Japan, the Fushimi Inari shrine is the most iconic. A series of red gates, leading into the distance and drawing you in to explore. The mountain trail is easily accessible from the train station and totally free. The path twisted and turned and would frequently open up to reveal a set of shrines.
I ploughed on through the gates, and I was halfway up the mountain before I decided to stop, turn around and check my progress. The rear of each gate was carved with Japanese symbols. To my illiterate eye they were beautiful and in that moment I learn a valuable lesson; stop, look around and enjoy the moment. I later found out the carvings were the names of the companies who donated money to the shrine but by that point I'd already learnt my lesson. I took off from the main path and found little dilapadated shrines all over the mountainside. It was easy to find your own niche and soak it all in.
After the walk, I had tempura prawns and miso soup in a back alley restaurant. Getting off the main routes was proving to be successful. The food was delicious and everyone in the restaurant wanted to speak to me. The people were genuinely warm.
"where did you come from?" they asked.
I'd learnt that to say I'd come straight from China only resulted in frowns and grumbles.
"Manchester, England" I replied.
"Ah! Very good," the chef beamed "Shinji Kagawa. Number one footballer!"
And just like that, the global currency of Manchester United meant I'd made a few friends and we enjoyed our lunches together.  

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