It was a hot summer day in 2002, when I and Ryan were walking along the Philosopher’s Walk. This small street along a canal that didn’t look any special for me connects Ginkakuji to Nanzenji, one of the many tourist routes in Kyoto, Japan. Ryan’s mum was right, this street didn’t feel philosophical. Didn’t evoke any special feeling. This street gained its name because a Japanese famous philosopher was said to practice meditation along this road everyday. Later on I found out that all the boring looking big trees along the canal were cherry trees, and if we had came to Kyoto in April during the sakura blossom season, this street would have looked fantastic. We picked the wrong month to see Kyoto!
That was almost 9 years ago, and that marked our first backpacking journey. Back then, we were not aware of the term “backpacking“. We were both exchange students in a university in Tokyo. I was from Indonesia, and Ryan was from Canada. If we didn’t meet by chance here, our lifes would have been really different. Maybe really boring.
As I said, we didn’t know about backpacking back then, let alone “budget backpacking”. What we knew was that we were a couple of poor students in Tokyo and we wanted to see the world famous Kyoto, that looked so exotic to us. So one day, with our little backpacks on our backs, and what little money we could scrape together, we set off to Kyoto.
I regret being in Japan for a year and never getting a chance to ride the Shinkansen, the superfast Japanese bullet train. Shinkansen was quite expensive, except if you are a tourist and you order the ticket prior to entering the country which we unfortunately couldn’t do. So we took a series of short distance train rides on a discounted ticket for local services only. With Shinkansen, the journey would take only a couple of hours. With the way we were doing it, it took the whole day and many times we had to ride the train standing up. But then, it was much cheaper.
Right from the start we didn’t really care about being well planned. When we reached Kyoto, we had no idea where to stay yet. We arrived in the station late and spent the first night in a cheap hotel nearby, too pricey already for us, with a room barely large enough to fit the futon we slept on. The next morning, we went to a visitor information office and luckily there were some advertisement for rooms for rent. We picked the cheapest one and called the number. A friendly Russian-accented voice invited us to come and check it out.
It was cheap indeed, but it was quite depressing, at least because we were not so adventurous back then. The house looked and smelled like it was rotting, and sat along a drainage canal in a run down neighborhood. I couldn’t believe a place like this existed in Japan, a country I’d always thought of as clean, rich, and ultra-modern. The owner was an English speaking Russian expat with a bulbous nose, permanently cherry red from too much drinking. A nice and helpful man, but frankly not good at keeping his house clean.
The bedroom was very spacious seeing the size of the little house, but the bed sheet looked as if it had been accumulating grime for the past several months without being cleaned. Moreover, cockroaches were everywhere. A cockroach kingdom occupied this room! It was difficult to fall asleep when you could hear many of them crawling around you, scuttling under the bed and in the dropped ceiling. They’d run up the frosted glass doors and windows, throwing large, monstrous shadows on the walls as they passed.
The shower room was equally depressing. It was tiny and dark, and the toilet was just a hole in the ground. I know squat toilets are traditional in Japan, but anywhere else, there would be a ceramic toilet bowl on the ground, and a flush system. Not this one. This one was just a hole in the ground. Borat’s kind of toilet, if you know what I mean. It looked like they made it by knocking a hole in the floor with an axe. The room was small and dark, and the very hole was in the middle. So I accidentally stepped in that gross hole more than once.
Despite the grungy house and the strong summer heat, we had a great time in Kyoto. Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, blew me away. It was indeed gilded with gold-leaf, making it look very yellow and shiny. The reflection of the golden pavilion on the pool water just made it even more beautiful. Ginkaku-ji, the Temple of Silver Pavilion, the other hand, didn’t look impressive because there was no silver coating on it, a let down based on its name. But there, for the first time, I saw a “sand garden”. Awesome! I liked imagining the monks raking it carefully every morning!
We didn’t spot any geisha! Or geiko, or maiko. We waited and waited in the Pontocho and Gion district, but we had no luck. Just as with my fate never riding on Shinkansen, I never saw a real geisha during my one year stay in Japan. What a bummer!
One lovely aspect of Japan is that they have the modern and traditional life goes side by side. In such a modern country, we saw the gardeners of Kyoto Imperial Palace wearing their traditional working uniforms cleaning a pond, by literally standing inside the pond and sweeping it! Sweeping out a body of water, I’d never seen that before.
Roaming Kyoto with Ryan, I experienced a kind of freedom that I’d never felt before. The concerns of the world, the social obligations, and the monotonous routine, all fell away and we were focused purely on the enjoyment of exploring and experiencing the new. For the first time I was living without worries or regrets, entirely in the moment. The little discomforts of travel seemed like nothing beside that feeling of liberation.
On our way back to Tokyo the trains were crowded with families and young people heading to the natsu matsuri, or summer festivals. That night the skies were lit up by fireworks in villages all across the countryside. And as we sat on the train gazing at the fireworks in the distance, I thought back on the adventure was coming to an end. I didn’t know it yet, but a little seed of an adventurous life was planted in my heart during this short trip. And over the years it would grow, until we decided to adopt a lifestyle of full time nomads, exploring the mysterious world!
What about you? When did you catch the travel bug?
*If you love Japan and have been there, please join us in creating “Best of Japan by Travelers Around the World” photo-post!