Kyoto, 京都, literally translates to “capital city of all.” It was the first capital city and one of the oldest cities of Japan, teeming with both history and modernity.
Where there are skyscrapers, there are tiled roofs and wooden door fronts. As a traveler exits Kyoto station, they are greeted with Kyoto Tower, illuminated brightly at night. Hiding right behind it is the black and wooden Hongan-ji. I fell in love. This was the first day in Kyoto, 6 in the morning after catching minimal sleep in the cramped night bus, squished into a ball for 10 hours.
I was surprised to find out this would only be the beginning of my infatuation and love for this city —
the start of an adventure I will never forget.
If I could describe the last month in one word, it would be spontaneity. Others may call it stupid, but the two are not mutually exclusive.
But my decision to go to Japan was far from spontaneous, rather, more fortuitous. When I was searching for an opportunity to travel alone, I looked at a list of all the possible countries that wouldn’t risk too much of my own safety as a twenty-year-old-that-looks-like-she’s-sixteen. I wanted to make use of my photography and Japanese language and art history classes this semester. The answer was pretty clear, once I found cheap (free) accommodation. It helped that I love Japanese food.
Thereafter came the random decisions, to walk, to eat, to experience, and to learn.
Living in Korea during high school and as a child, Japan is only an hour or two away. My summer and winter breaks would often contain a three day trip to wherever the package tour advertisement led us. The last trip I took with the whole family was to Hokkaido in the winter of 2012.
Yet the most I remember from that trip is sitting in a bus that took us around to various tourist sites, lingering only an hour or so at a time before getting herded back on board for the next destination. We had little choice on what we could eat, where we could stay, or what else we could do. Thinking back, I’m a little sad to think my experiences were fettered, but I’m still grateful I even had the opportunity to be exposed to different cultures.
I took a lot of time on this trip.
The number of things you can do in three days is limited. In three weeks, I visited the same locations more than 5 times. It was supposed to be the same view, but at a different time of the day, with different company, with different things to look for, everything looked very different.
Below is a picture taken at Fushimi Inari-taisha, a beautiful and famous shrine nesting Mt. Inari and dedicated to the fox god, surprisingly named Inari. I visited this shrine alone shortly after I arrived in Kyoto. The photo is of the thousands of red gates that line the entire path through the mountain. I went on a clear day in the morning, before the crowd.
Here it is again, on a cloudier day, but with company.
My boyfriend TY and his friends, Chow and Jiehao, visited Kyoto for four days. Thus while acting as a sort of tour guide and translator, I was able to revisit a lot of the places I had already been but this time noticing details that I had missed.
On consequent trips, I took time to take more interesting photos, and to really indulge in the scenes. I developed a habit of “looking back” (Shout out to Matt for noticing this!). I think I realized at some point just how occupied all the time we were in life, staring straight forward. We forget how high up we’ve hiked or how far we’ve come down the street.
All throughout the trip, I spent the most time walking around. During days where I was entirely alone, I tried my hardest to walk everywhere. The slow pace was quite literally agonizing sometimes, but my 10+ trips to Japan before could not compete with this one, simply because I took time to take everything in, as much as I could.
Wandering around and getting lost.
Kyoto is a bustling city full of small roads and little houses, so it takes one wrong (or right?) turn to find beautiful alleyways and tourist-free neighborhoods. It’s quite common to find yourself absolutely swallowed by a swarm of people, but only if you follow the main road.
The picture below is an alleyway in Gion, a district known for geishas, or courtesan women, and kabuki, a traditional Japanese style of theater dating back to the 17th century. The bluish street on the other side leads to a major road, packed with people.
Google Maps is a dear gift sent from heaven. It’s probably saved wanderers like myself from stumbling into a dead end or some uninhabited forest more than enough times for anyone to deny its utility. Perhaps, however, this exact technology that gives us the freedom to travel without fear is the exact reason we get bound down, spoiled and afraid to explore outside of the screen.
And thus, I decided that on some of the days I would just let myself free from staring down at my phone and looking up destinations.
I found gems. The best of the days I spent alone were the days I literally planned nothing and decided to simply walk, somewhere. As a consequence, I was able to show friends some locations that you would only know of if you took the weirdest of routes that no tour book or TripAdvisor article would ever recommend.
For instance, I took a weird turn on my first visit to Fushimi Inari. Being one of the most famous sites in Japan, this mountain is almost always completely filled with tourists, many of whom attempt to circuit the mountain via a hike that takes you up many stairs and down many stairs. I struck gold after spontaneously deciding to take a route up a random switchback that no one seemed to even look at.
Below is what I found in this part of Mt. Inari that was basically deserted—a bamboo forest so thick the sun could barely penetrate through.
Being a local.
I’ll be honest, I sometimes would do this to avoid crowds. It’s an eyesore to see groups of 15–20 people take up a chunk of the road, the tour guide flinging some sort of flag or doll up ahead. It’s hard to take photos. They clog the pedestrian traffic. A lot of pushing, a lot of mindless chatter, a lot of stress for an amateur photographer trying to take a photo to get likes on Instagram.
Living costs in Japan is relatively expensive, but only if you make it so. Many of my meals were, to be frank, not the most appealing nor the most decadent. Many days, I ate from the konbini, a convenience store. But I was able to practice reading the kanji off the menu and taste the local food at a local price. I was not distracted by the side comments made by foreigners who think the others around them don’t understand what they’re saying. I never waited in long lines, especially if it were for the same menu item offered by a lesser known place, at a lower price.
That being said, I did indulge in some foods when my Mom and sister stopped by to visit from Korea and decided to feed me.
Meeting people and greeting with こんにちは。
I was lucky to find free housing during my stay. In short, I found a website that lists local hosts all over the world who are willing to provide accommodations in return for volunteer hours. After much searching and many emails, I decided to stay with a few other volunteers at Gojo Paradiso, which is both a restaurant/bar and a guest house for other tourists.
My “job” there was to help out with the social media side of things, advertising Meetups for locals and tourists, as well as updating Instagram and Facebook for the restaurant. During dinnertime, I helped out once in a while with service, but I spent most of my time at the bar just talking with the other volunteers and customers. The bartenders were all from Japan, so it was very easy for me to practice my Japanese. I met volunteers from all over the world — Turkey, Israel, China, Germany, Canada, Mexico — and they all had a story to tell.
The customers I met were the most interesting. Gojo Paradiso is frequented by a lot of tourists who miss American cuisine, but also by locals who want to meet foreigners and practice English. To say the least, every night was filled with laughter. I learned so many new ways to engage in conversation, no matter their background.
I tried my hardest to start every conversation in Japanese. Living in the States, people expect everyone to speak English. Honestly, it confuses me when travelers don’t make the effort to learn how to say even just hello in the language of the country they’re visiting.
Nonetheless, the most fruitful and fun of conversations came when I would speak in broken Japanese to someone that was learning English. Over time our hand motions would get wilder and more creative.
It is a good thing that laughter is a universal word for happiness.
Japan is a very safe country. There are no guns here. There is a police station in every other corner. I dropped a 10¥ coin at the convenience store (10 cents) and the cashier ran a full block down to return it to me.
Still, I am a Korean, twenty year old girl that tries really hard to look like she’s tough. It would be stupid for me to assume that everyone I meet is nice. It would be foolish for me to not stay wary.
At the bar, I introduced myself and was introduced to many strangers, some who became friends, others who were better left strangers. I met those who were distraught, those who needed the familiar accompaniment named alcohol. There were individuals that were simply looking for women. There were individuals who wanted to just talk.
I learned there was a lot more to this world that I was not aware of, and that this was just the tip of a very big iceberg.
Leaving room to learn.
Perhaps fortunately because of my interests in Japan since middle school and a more traditional Korean upbringing, I did not really have much difficulty nor find surprise in Japanese culture. Nevertheless, there was still more than enough room to find something new.
For instance, pedestrians walk on the left side of the road, partly because Japanese traffic is left-handed. At Buddhist temples, a bell is rung 108 times to celebrate the new year. It is extremely rude to pass food to another person using your chopsticks, as such a practice is similar to removing the bones from a cremated body. There are vending machines everywhere, but no trash cans anywhere, and curiously enough, no litter anywhere. The respectful and rule-abiding society breaks down quite intensely when alcohol comes into play.
To put things in a different light, I thought to myself what it would have been like had I been to a country I had close to no knowledge about. Would I read more? What would I do to explore? Would I be as adventurous?
There were a few days in which I missed having someone to talk to. The dynamic during the days I was visited by various friends was very different, to say the least. While I spoke close to nothing on lone walks, every other minute would be filled with some sort of chatter with company.
This is what you say when you enter a restaurant, to indicate you are eating alone.
Hitori-desu. It would be the only thing I would say, probably for the whole day until I returned to Gojo Paradiso.
While slurping my udon or nomming on an onigiri, it would hit me hard how much I missed having a friend to talk to. My meals would take no more than 15 minutes after service.
While waiting for the train, I felt as though the platforms were missing something. Still busy and bustling, but distant and strange. There were no jokes. There were no questions to answer. Just the wind that whipped by with the passing train.
Of the 28 days that I spent in Japan, 13 of the days with friends and family. These were the days that I was reminded of companionship —
walking side-by-side a crowded street,
sharing one too many street foods,
daring to explore the 7th floor of shops in Akihabara,
hiking up a mountain filled with monkeys,
taking the wrong metro and blaming someone else,
creating stupid poses for the best photos,
just loving the presence of one another.
Thank you everyone, for visiting me, for commenting on my endless photos, for supporting me throughout. That was a blast. I have just one question:
Where should I go next?