hat must Japanese tourists think when they first see an Italian train? I don’t mean a shiny Eurostar or even a well-kept IC Plus. I’m talking about the typical Trenitalia regional trains with dingy carriages, broken air conditioning, and graffiti-marred surfaces inside and out. The trains where people put their feet on the seats and toss their garbage on the floor. The trains that likely arrive late or perhaps not at all … sciopero!
Those trains do not exist in Japan. After a week spent marveling at the subway seats in Tokyo — upholstered with pristine faux-velvet fabric, and not even a crumb in sight — I eagerly anticipated the journey my husband and I were about to make to Kyoto on the pinnacle of transportation efficiency: the Japanese bullet train, called shinkansen.
Like something from a non-animated version of “The Jetsons,” the futuristic vessel noiselessly pulled into Tokyo Station and we climbed aboard. Comfortably situated in my seat with legroom to spare, I peered out the window and watched as the platform clock’s second hand ticked closer to our departure time. Calming bells rang to a catchy tune, signaling the train’s imminent departure, which as I suspected, was not one second delayed. In a flash, the city became suburbs, and a moment later, green farmland. Meanwhile, we picked through our breakfast bento boxes and then settled in for a nap. Less than three hours later, we arrived in Kyoto.
Chockablock with shrines and temples, Kyoto is where retired world travelers flock to play out their kimono-in-a-teahouse fantasies. Foreigner-friendly ryokans — traditional Japanese guesthouses — serve nightly meals to guests who prefer to be spared the awkward giggle-and-point ordering charade in a real restaurant. Bus tours shuttle Westerners between UNESCO World Heritage sites with nary a moment to pause and reflect on a reflection pool.
But onto a bus and into the woods we would not go. Instead, my husband and I relied on our matching skills as we picked our way through kanji, deciphering subway ticket machines and restaurant signs with reasonable success. With nothing but a terrible Lonely Planet map — whoever said Lonely Planet makes good maps has not been to Japan — we set off along the Philosopher’s Path, so named because it was once the favored walking route of a famous Kyoto University philosophy professor.
The route followed a small footpath along the edge of a narrow canal lined with cherry trees. The last of the spring cherry blossoms still clung to the branches stretching out across the canal, hinting at the beautiful scene we had arrived too late to witness. Across a stone bridge, a nondescript path led up into the hillside where tiny shrines were tucked away in the woods, far from the well-trodden tourist trail below. Barreling from one ancient temple to the next, the bus tours neglect these quiet meditation coves, leaving the area blissfully quiet.
But once the sun sank behind the hills and the hillside faded to black, we were forced to leave the woods and return to the crowded modern streets. Facing the glare of the city’s neon lights, it was time to find some dinner.
After my harrowing sushi adventure in Tokyo, I was ready for a more laid-back experience. So we grabbed a pair of seats in front of the conveyor belt at Musashi Sushi, near the entrance to the Sanji covered arcade. Perfect for the finicky eater, kaiten-zushi, or conveyor-belt sushi, is as easy as it gets. If it looks good, grab it and eat. No hovering sushi chef watching you chew. No shaming glares when you can’t stomach the sea urchin. And every plate is just ¥130 (less than €1 at 133 yen to a euro).
A waitress brought us drinks and showed us how to make our own green tea with hot water from a little spout next to bottles of soy sauce and a pot of ginger. Then we started grabbing plates. By the time we were finished, we’d amassed quite a collection — 23 plates in total — and we were stuffed. It wasn’t the best sushi that I had ever eaten, but not a bad deal for about €30.
After dinner, as dusk turned into night, we wandered through the Gion district in search of the elusive geisha. A dwindling number of geisha and maiko — their flamboyantly dressed apprentices — still work along Gion’s back streets and narrow alleys, providing traditional entertainment and conversation to wealthy Japanese men. The teahouses where they charm and perform do not take reservations from just anyone — only a privileged few ever converse with these painted dolls. But when they quietly slip out of a teahouse door on their way home after another night of work, the lucky tourist can catch a glimpse.
My husband doesn’t understand my fascination with geisha. Even after we passed an exquisitely dressed maiko, shuffling quickly on her wooden sandals down the street, he merely shrugged. But for a girl who often considers mascara, lip-gloss, and a clean pair of jeans adequate primping for a night out, the geisha’s meticulous dressing and grooming — all for the pleasure of men — was mesmerizing. It was something in the studied elusiveness, the disregard for modernity, the subtle undertone of prostitution — I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly piqued my curiosity, but I knew that I wanted a closer look. Nevertheless, after two more brief geisha sightings, I agreed to call off the hunt and try a bar that my husband had heard about.
But before we could order drinks, we first we had to find the bar — no small task in a country where addresses are more like reference points than specific locations. To further complicate matters, restaurants and bars are often hidden on the upper floors of multi-story buildings. After three or four loops around the same block, we finally looked up and saw the sign we were looking for: ING. The similarity with my name was promising. So we squished into an elevator with a disheveled man in a business suit headed, no doubt, for a “gentlemen’s club” on a different floor.
The hallway outside the elevator was all peeling linoleum and harsh fluorescent bulbs, but inside the bar’s heavy door was an entirely different world. The one small room was smoky and dimly lit but teeming with rough ambiance. David Bowie played on the stereo as we munched on hot French fries and sipped icy Sapporo from jumbo-sized bottles. Before long, we were toasting the 30th birthday of an expat Canadian with his Japanese girlfriend. Soon thereafter, a second Canadian expat plopped down at the bar, and my husband commented on his well-worn Phish hat. The next thing we knew, it was two in the morning.
The next day, we were determined to pack in the sightseeing. First was a visit to Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple, where we felt like we were on a field trip with all of Kyoto’s schoolchildren — most in matching uniforms, though some were dressed up for the occasion in traditional kimonos. At the nearby Ryoanji temple, we found quiet but not solitude while meditating on the temple’s Zen rock garden. For the last stop of the day, we ducked into the gardens at Ginkakuji temple, which was where I finally found what I’d been looking for.
Following the gravel path through the garden, we admired the stone formations, the pond, and the Silver Temple (which was unfortunately under construction). Suddenly, I felt a sharp elbow jab in my stomach. When I looked up in anger, my husband had a huge grin on his face.
“Look,” he whispered, pointing at the trail ahead of us. “Geisha.”
Technically she was a maiko, but nevertheless, there she was, like a beautiful clown through the trees. I crept ahead to get a better look. Dragging my husband along by the arm, we followed her and her gaggle of skinny businessmen in suits until she stopped in the sunlight for photos. Each of the men in her entourage took their turn, smiling awkwardly as they posed for the camera. And then it was our turn. She turned and smiled in the sun for a minute or two more, charming us with her eyes as we hurried to capture her on film. And then as quickly as she had appeared, she was gone.
As we left the temple, my husband started talking about the logistics of returning to Tokyo the following morning. But I was more interested in seeing how the pictures turned out, so I pulled out the camera. With perfect, late afternoon light, I had captured every detail — the bright red lips against powdered white skin, the pale-pink cherry blossom ornament adorning carefully sculpted, jet-black hair, the folds of orange and cream fabric draped to reveal just a hint of painted skin at the nape of her neck.
“So was it everything you’d hoped?” he asked, referring most likely, to Kyoto.
Putting my geisha dreams to sleep and the camera back in my bag, I smiled and said yes.
- From Tokyo, shinkansen to Kyoto depart from Tokyo and Shinagawa stations several times per day. The trip takes about two hours and fifteen minutes and tickets cost ¥13,320. Tickets can be purchased at JR ticket vending machines or at any JR ticket counter. Route maps and timetables can be found (in English) at Japan Rail.
- Compared to deciphering the Tokyo metro’s spider web of overlapping lines, figuring out the Kyoto subway map is a snap. There are just two lines — one runs north-south and the other east-west. The minimum fare is ¥210, but the fare varies depending on the length of your journey.
- If the subway can’t take you where you need to go, hop on a bus. Buses have a flat fare of ¥220 within the city. Tickets can be bought onboard — just drop your coins into the plastic machine near the driver. On the most popular (read: touristy) routes, announcements are also made in English.