Skip navigation
text size: default | enlarged——servicing readers in 130 plus countries——110 free stories
Genre: Travel
Back to Previous Page Review This Story Share This Story

Two Days In Japan

By: Sandra Smith

A Day In Kyoto

My plane from Honolulu lands in Osaka. The flight takes eight hours but I was able to sleep a little. This first trip into Asia holds a certain anxiety for me. I travel frequently but this is the first time I will encounter an alphabet so different from my own. I fear I can't even copy a question from my new Japanese phrase book. Leaving the jetway, I have no idea what to expect.

Within minutes my fears recede. The signs are in Japanese and English. I find the JR West rail and am soon speeding into Kyoto in luxurious comfort. It's raining gently and the countryside is very green. Every small space is used for gardening. A narrow strip of land by the rails hosts vegetable and flower gardens.

A taxi takes me to the hostel. I am lucky that the hostel has room for me. I forgot that I'd crossed the International Date Line and I reserved for the wrong date. The cherry blossoms are blooming two weeks early and there isn't a room available in Kyoto.

Hostels are wonderful cheap places to stay and also to meet other travelers. The Tour Club in Kyoto is one of the best I've ever used. Managed by a young man who has traveled extensively, it is homey, clean and very friendly. In no time I've made up my lower bunk with futon and a feather comforter and I'm having a cup of tea in the tatami room. Tatami is a finely woven floor covering. Only socks and bare feet may walk on tatami. The table is low and we sit on pillows. Others drift in and we begin to share information on favorite sites in Kyoto and travel stories.

There is an inexpensive restaurant near the hostel. The waiter is friendly and the menu has English translation. After dinner the long flight and time difference catch up with me. My room in the hostel is cozy and has a view of a zen garden. I drift off feeling happy that I've embarked on this adventure.

My egg at breakfast is fried in a heart shape and served with bread and jam at the low table in the tatami room. There is always hot water for coffee and tea and a congenial atmosphere. The hostel will close from 11 am to 4 pm. I plan to be sightseeing all day.

After a stop at the tourist information where I get a city map and some ideas, I head over to Kyoto's main station. Besides being the center of bus and train traffic, the station has a shopping mall. Five women are playing classical music outside. The early arrival of the cherry blossoms seems to be cause for celebration.

Unable to ask someone how to navigate the bus system, I decide on a bus adventure. While still at the hostel I took the precaution of picking up a card with the name and address written in Japanese. As a last resort, I'll hail a taxi tonight and show the driver the card. I buy the all day subway and bus pass I've read about and board the first bus I see.

In Japan, one boards from the rear of the bus and pays the driver when exiting. I choose a bus just starting out from the station so it will be easier to find a seat. It heads East and I soon realize that I'm in Gion. Famous for the elaborately costumed geisha and their apprentice maiko girls, Gion is the entertainment center of Kyoto. I depart the bus. Following a crowd, I enter a temple courtyard where all the walkways are lined with vendors. Papers with writing are being tied to ropes and bells are being rung. Later I find out that ringing the bell is to call attention to the prayer request. I spend several hours wandering through the food stalls and being part of this happy crowd. The Japanese people don't usually walk and eat. Each food vendor has a few benches covered with red fabric.

Adventuring through the city, I visit several temples. Navigating the city and reading signs in the Kanji alphabet become easier. I become acclimated to Kyoto. In the days to come I will be able to easily visit gardens and historic sites. It's a good day and ends with a cup of rich dark coffee at Café du Monde in the station. They don't serve beignets but half way around the world, I'm in New Orleans. No matter where I travel, it's good to feel at home.

To top of page

A Day In Nara

Tuesday, is a cherry blossom-blessed day in Kyoto. Breakfasting at the hostel, I discover that several of us will be traveling to Nara today. Good discussion tonight! We like to sit around the Japanese-style low table in the tatami room and compare notes. I have met folks from Virginia in the U.S., Australia and Netherlands as well as some who are traveling and working in Japan. Hosteling is a rich source of conversation for solo travelers.

Nara is a 40 min. train trip from the Kyoto Station. There is a certain amount of anxiety over my ability to figure it all out and get myself there. It is very comforting to have another person to discuss things with in a foreign culture. I don't have that so am on my own. The signs are in Japanese and English and soon I'm on my train.

Upon arrival I find a coffee shop with Jazz décor and wonderful coffee. Over a cup of espresso I plan my day using the map and tourist information from the station. I decide to walk and wander through the shopping area and temple grounds along the way. There are several world heritage sites in Nara.

Nara has a park with tame deer and many picnicking families. Two old people come over and sit on the bench with me. They want to converse, but that is impossible. I have prepared myself to tell a stranger that their country is beautiful, however. Nara is indeed "key-lay." They have little English. There is a heart connection and I appreciate their gesture of friendship. Many here are reticent with foreigners.

Another approach. A businessman sees me consulting a map and offers to help. He speaks enough English to find out where I'm going (I show him on the map) but not enough to direct me. He walks me to the temple.

We pass a five story pagoda on our way to the Todai-ji Buddhist temple. It is common in Japanese gardens to maximize the impression one makes of a beautiful spot by hiding it from long range view. So the temple, with its colossal Buddha, are hidden until one enters the grounds. The main statue is 52 feet high and housed in what is reputed to be the world's largest wooden building.

It is here that I once again celebrate my solo experience. The presence of another person buffers me from my experience. While I would have welcomed support at the train station, the awe of being in this temple and at the foot of this statue is not in any way buffered. With no one to say something to ground the experience, the intensity is whole.

There is an opportunity to paint a message on a roof tile and a monk helps me. My message of hope for world peace will be on the roof of that temple. Like all good fundraising, the monk empowers me to help fund a project I value.

A taxi is a splurge but in Japan one can count on fast, clean, honest service from the taxis and it's a treat after walking so much in the city. I feel strong in the train returning to Kyoto. I have met the challenge of this travel day and have experienced a most beautiful place. I am eager to see how my new friends spent their day.

Exploring the world alone can be both challenging and rewarding. But, the rewards far outweigh the challenge. It is such a small world, a friend is never far away.

To top of page