October 29, 2008:
Morning in Tokyo is lovely and clement (probably mid-sixties), but there's little time to enjoy it. Today's trajectory will take us via Japan Rail to Kyoto. Then later tonight we journey to Osaka to stay the night. The following morning, we travel from Osaka to Koya, and to the remote hamlet of Koyasan: The latter will be (we hope) one of the trip's highlights.
The train trip from Tokyo to Kyoto takes about two hours. It encapsulates one of the things I love most about traveling--namely, getting a glimpse (however fleeting) of the routine daily life in a foreign country. Beyond the cosmopolitan shimmer of Tokyo, Japanese suburbs zip by. Tight clusters of apartments and factories break up patches of lush green trees and rice paddies: Surprisingly, in such a densely-populated land there are still some wide-open spaces.
Our first big salvo of sensory overload hits us not in Tokyo but in Kyoto. Kyoto Station is a massive modern bivouac, honeycombed with multiple shops and restaurants as well as masses of boarding gates and Bullet Trains. Just when the shiny and futuristic architecture starts to resemble a typical western metropolitan train station too strongly, some distinctively Japanese quirk surfaces—Mighty Atom (better known to stateside nerds as Astro Boy) greets us at the entrance of the Station, and several signs brim with the wonderfully skewed English that’s part and parcel of so much Japanese advertising. When we arrive, the Station's stuffed to capacity with swarms of commuters, shoppers, and tourists. Our first destination--the Kyoto Tourist Office--allegedly resides on the ninth floor of Isetan, a department store in the middle of the station. Before hitting the Station interior, we explore the surrounding area a bit. Firefighters run through drills at the Kyoto Fire Station, and they're surrounded by yet more memorable signage.
An adorable little cartoon girl in an oversized hat, meantime, adorns the mail box at the Kyoto Post Office. She's lots more fun than that fuddy-duddy old US eagle. Finding the Tourist Office proves to be an adventure by itself. Rita and I have packed light (not for naught has the missus earned the nickname of Consolidata), but the shoebox-sized elevators (and the Ben-Hur-length waiting times for them) induce us to lug all of our bags awkwardly through the various levels of the store in search of this mythic location. We stick out among the flawless-looking upscale shoppers like scraggly sore toes. After a Spinal Tap-style series of meandering twists through boutique showrooms, escalators, and isolated corridors we find the Tourist Information Office and obtain the information we need (directions to the Hotel New Myako, where we'll join an evening tour group).Our search for a coin locker large enough for our bags extends the Stranger-in-a-Strange-Land thrills. Both of us are dressed like schlubby tourists in jeans and t-shirts when we hit Kyoto Station, and we deem it necessary to change into something a bit more respectable for tonight's festivities (ditching the backpacks and bags for a few hours'll be nice, too). Rita and I find the last super-sized locker in Kyoto Station and guard it like pitbulls, each of us taking shifts as the other runs into the nearby bathrooms to change. Our fevered possessiveness does nothing to save us when we end up accidentally re-locking the locker twice, wasting about 1200 yen (12 bucks American) and cementing our Dumb American Tourist credentials but good.
Things look up when we converge at the Hotel New Myako for what promises to be an exciting evening. At a local restaurant, a maiko (geisha-in-training) will perform traditional dances for us, and then we'll eat a nine-course Japanese meal. A taxi takes us from the New Myako to the restaurant, which is scenically located opposite an impressive Buddhist temple. While waiting for the presentation to begin we explore the area around the (now-closed for the evening) temple.
The commercial and traditional rub against one another readily. Tommy Lee Jones' craggy character-actor mug pimps coffee drinks from a vending machine, and a cartoon statue of a geisha pertly sings the praises of some exotic Japanese snack or other. Amidst all of this pop-culture strangeness, monks nonchalantly traverse the sidewalks, and the ancient wooden structure of the temple looms over the street beatifically.
Several organizations in Japan offer maiko or geiko (geisha) experiences, and it can be expensive to get a glimpse at this ceremony. The one we view is less taxing to our pocketbook than a full-on geiko experience (our maiko is accompanied by a CD instead of live musicians), but neither of us feels short-changed in any way. Our maiko's the real deal--a 19-year old carrying on the centuries-old tradition--and she's graceful and beautiful. Only when she pauses between dances for a Q-and-A does her unearthly veneer reveal the refreshing universality of a typical smart-alecky teen (grown-ups and their goofy questions...).
Next, we dine. Our meal consists of nine courses, all traditional Nihongo fare. I dive into the meal despite my strong aversion to seafood in general, and the food's phenomenal. The cornucopia of flavors--savory miso soup, a tender and flaky mackeral derivation, the vinegared tang of pickled cucumbers, the breaded tempura shrimp and vegetables, the melange of sauces, the volcanic scorch of wasabi--are as carefully orchestrated as the meal's visual presentation. Rita and I are hungry as hell, so we clean our plates with the efficiency of a Whirlpool dishwasher. It all washes down headily with some green tea and warm sake.
The tour company springs for a cab ride back to Kyoto Station. We retrieve our bags and hop the JR to Osaka at about 9pm. A half-hour later, we're in Osaka Station, which is, amazingly, even bigger and more packed than Kyoto. The Swissotel Osaka connects directly to Osaka Station, so once we arrive it's just a quick jog to our lodgings. Then again, with four nicely-stuffed bags slung over our weary shoulders, that quick jog stretches like taffy.
It's a bit of a bummer that we're only staying until the morning. Osaka looks like quite the funhouse: The skyline outside our hotel room window offers more futuristic architecture, cotton candy neon, and strange structures that imply amusement-park fun. Almost directly below our window is a building whose rooftop is dotted with graveyard-shift factory workers--It's like a scene out of Metropolis, only with neon-etched cartoon characters smiling down on the proles.
Once we check in, I run down to the lobby to shoot a quick progress email to our stateside friends while Rita relaxes. Just a few feet away from the Internet Station is a lounge: A dapper forty-something Japanese singer in a pinstripe suit plunks away at the house piano and croons Barry Manilow and Celine Dion hits in magnificently fractured English. The neon and electric light from the Osaka cityscape illuminate the singer from behind. Cigarette smoke does Indian rope trick climbs to the ceiling around him, and the glasses of the half-dozen or so lounge patrons clink away as rounds are tossed down. Sadly, he finishes, the bar closes, and the surreal scene evaporates before I have the chance to go back up to our room and get the camera.
Tomorrow morning we'll pick up and hit the train again, this time for a destination much closer to nature.