I spent my second full day in Kyoto
"taking it easy" in the touring realm. Don't get me wrong, you could spend weeks in Kyoto and still not see everything -- this city is flush with terrific sights. I was out taking in as much as I could until about 4pm; a pretty full day when you're not talking in Kyoto terms.
I set out bright and early and was promptly accosted by a very happy-go-lucky Japanese gentleman, and spent nearly 90 full minutes standing on a bridge talking to him. He literally charged right up to me and was chirping "Hello! Hi! How are you? Do you like Japan? Where are you from?" and so on. I've encountered this from people I engage in day-to-day things, like a store clerk or a restaurant waiter/owner/chef (invariably always a woman and always doing all three herself).
AWESOME Japanese dude
Except they're usually sheepish in demeanor, like they don't want to offend me by expressing their curiosity. On the contrary, I always really enjoy talking to them. But here is this guy, all up in my face (in a good way), beaming the biggest smile you can imagine, asking all sorts of questions. And I mean ALL SORTS of questions. We talked about swimming for longer than I think I've ever discussed swimming before in my life. He wanted to know what the English term was for the horse stroke and the frog stroke. I told him I had never heard of such a thing. He enacted them out for me, much to my entertainment, and then was disappointed to learn I still didn't have a proper term for them. So then he wanted to know our term for drowning.
And I was like "drowning." And he's all "no no, what do you call the swim stroke when someone is drowning -- like this" and enacts drowning. (This was a busy bridge. People were constantly passing us, and his antics earned us countless funny looks. I loved it.) And I'm all "um, we don't have a stroke
for drowning. Simply, we call it drowning." He was so disappointed! And exclaimed out limited our vocabulary is. How can we be satisfied with merely four strokes?? Unthinkable! So then we're talking about the four basic strokes, all of which he knew by their proper names (freestyle, backstroke, butterfly, and breast stroke), which then turns this light bulb on in his head and he says he wants to know what the man's equivalent of a bust was.
He knew both women and men had breasts and that women had busts, so surely we had another term for men. I offered the word "chest," but after conceding that this was equally used for both males and females, he was more dissatisfied still with the limiting -- and now also sexist -- nature of English. Then I told him people generally refer to women as having breasts and not so much men, and he probably shouldn't go around inquiring after men's breasts. This spurned us off into a whole other direction.
So about 20 minutes in he pulls out these little squares of paper and asks if I would mind assisting him with his English. It took us an hour (not exaggerating) to go through them all. There were probably only six or eight of them, and each paper had no more than three sentences on it.
But every sentence was on a completely different topic, and after I corrected his grammar (only a few times) or praised his flawless English (nearly every time), off he'd go on some tangent about American culture and our ways pertaining to whatever was the subject of the sentence. For example, we discussed nurses, common manners and the young people who don't have them and don't offer their seat on a subway to an older person (he was much annoyed by this; I felt obliged to contradict him and say I've found nothing but flawless manners in every Japanese I've encountered, he wasn't so sure about those young punks), Columbus Day and why it is no longer an observed American holiday, we even talked about different kinds of light bulbs (a sentence contained something about a fluorescent light, which then involved him demanding me to explain the difference between fluorescent, halogen, and incandescent).
There was a geography lesson at one point, with him demanding I draw not one but two maps of New York, and be sure you include and properly label all five boroughs!, and each airport, don't forget to include all the lines where downtown and midtown and uptown start and end, don't forget all the bridges! and label them too!, and where exactly is the ferry that I need to take to the Statue of Liberty? That man knew his way around Manhattan. I tell you what. (Clearly he's been on more than one occasion, and I guess this was just prep for his next trip.) Sadly, I couldn't remember the name of the ferry (my guess was "Statue of Liberty ferry") or the precise cost of said ferry. I ballparked $30 bucks and told him whatever it was it was highway robbery because you're in New York and all these little temple fees I'm being forced to pay are taken back in kind.
I could give him the exact cross streets of where to find this ferry, which only partially soothed his incredulous "what do you mean you don't know the name of the ferry?!?! But you live in New York!" He asked no fewer than half a dozen times. And the answer "I don't know" -- which, unfortunately for me was my response something like a hundred and fifty times during our entire exchange -- only fueled this little man's incredulity. How could I be content not to know something?? Blasphemous!
Which then of course set him off on a tangent about how Americans (perhaps English speakers in general? I couldn't be sure) have no regard for etymology, or the study of language, and how we're content not to know the foundation or meaning or cause behind any given word.
We are ignorant of the "why" and "how" of our language, and apparently couldn't care less about this appalling ignorance. I confess I'm in this group. (And what's worse, I've never considered myself in this group before our conversation.) He'd ask me about random expressions we have, and after shrugging and not being able to explain how some expression or another came to be, he'd lecture me on precisely how and why it came to be. He made me look like a chump. I can now tell you with certainty why New York is nicknamed the Big Apple, and why Wall Street has such an unrelated name, as opposed to being named something like "Bank Street" or "Selfish Thieves Work Here." (Apparently this confounds the Japanese to epic levels you can't begin to imagine.
As a parting gift he kindly explained the difference between a shrine and a temple, and I've since realized I don't think I was sufficiently embarrassed for my lack of understanding. For us clueless tourists, you clap or ring a bell at a shrine to awaken the god and demand attention to yourself before wishing/requesting/hoping for wealth/happiness/a nice wife/so on in the future. A temple involves incense and waving or wafting it toward yourself before respectfully wishing/hoping good things for the past, or those who are departed. Shrine: future. Temple: past. Brilliant.
We finally bid our adieus, and I kicked myself for not thinking to ask him to lunch or a cafe to continue this life lesson of mine. Standing on a bridge in the blazing sun gets wearisome after ninety minutes, and while I thoroughly enjoyed his company I was all too happy to walk off and find some shade.
So much for being gracious and having my wits about me.
I bee-lined to a convenience store and gulped down a pint of banana-flavored milk (um, it's ridiculously good) and finally made my way to Sanjusenden-do. This temple houses 1,000 Kannon statues, and is pretty marvelous. The NO PHOTOGRAPHS signage all over the place put quite a damper on it; I wish you could see what a thousand
Kannon statues -- with 42 arms a piece, no less -- look like. Pretty cool. From Sanjusenden I walked further uptown and then up the mountain to Kiyomizu-dera, which is possibly the most famous and most visited sight in Kyoto. Remember all that praise I was lavishing on Fushimi-Inari? Kiyomizu-dera is no less deserving.
It's phenomenal. From Kiyomizu-dera I wandered down the hill at my leisure, poking through the dozens of tourist shops that line the street the whole way down. It was here that I finally had my epiphany that this
is what I remembered of Kyoto, and every time I pictured Kyoto in my mind I was picturing this very walk downhill past all the vendors, eating a matcha green tea flavored ice cream cone that I found revolting and pawned off on my dad, who eats anything. (For the record: love green tea ice cream now. Love green tea anything.) Stopped at an adorable restaurant near the bottom and had a giant delicious bowl of udon, served with steaming tofu and veggies, and a bowl of rice and some daikon (radish) on the side.
Mini firetruck. Love that they're pint-sized!
Good stuff. At this point I just wandered north along the Gion area (where the Geisha roam in the evenings) before cutting back across a different bridge and walked south through downtown to the hostel.
Pretty full day. But at least one at a more leisurely pace, and one contained to one quadrant of the city, rather than trying to sprint through three before sundown. I really, really enjoyed Kyoto, and it is not to be missed on a trip to Japan. If you only do two cities do Tokyo and Kyoto. As standard and "same old" as it sounds, there is good reason those two are at the top of everyone's list. Kyoto is everything rolled into one: urban setting with well preserved sights of historic significance in the lush outskirts.
Satisfies even the most difficult to please. Score another happy traveler for Kyoto.