Tag Archives: Japan

Kyoto’s Loving Arms

Original story from August 2006

After walking across almost the entire breadth of Tokyo the day before, I arrived in Kyoto via Shinkansen train a broken man. Flip flops had aided in developing huge blisters in the arches of my feet and others were starting on the balls and heel. How do you even say moleskin in Japanese?

Hauling my three small bags (this is before I was more travel-savvy) I oriented my map and made my way warily through the busy streets towards my hostel. One nice thing about Japan is that when you feel like you’re close to a hostel–just follow the westerners and you’ll probably find it soon enough. Kyoto’s Cheapest Inn has a bit of a cheeky name but is actually quite a nice facility for a single guy on a budget. I checked in to the group room, pulled my curtain and unpacked, soon giving in to wanderlust and the remembrance that I didn’t cross half the world to rest in my bunk bed. Also not wanting to punish my feet for the rest of my journey, I was able to locate some moleskin and patched them up good enough to tour Nijo Castle–the last stronghold of the Tokugawa Shogunate and a cozy 10 minute walk from the Inn.

Nijo-jo Castle Exterior

Nijo-jo Castle Exterior

The warm summer day was already soothing my fatigued being and I soon became witness to the still beauty of Kyoto. Flowers in full-blossom perfumed the air with an aroma of fragrance, acting almost like an aromatherapy for the traveling soul. I arrived at Nijo-jo (Japanese name) and payed the meager entry fee (600JPY); what I could see beyond the walls was already giving me a return on investment.

Entering the brilliant green courtyards, perfectly landscaped into a zen-harnessing utopia I have to say it was a pivotal moment in my life. It was the first time I had ever truly experienced something that I had waited my entire life to not only see, but to be consumed by a very presence. Seeing the sakura (cherry blossoms) dance through the warm winds with the garden orchestra, giving audience to the intricate and masterfully crafted walls and roofs of the castle harmonically became something more than a scene; it became an understanding of the people that created it and I believe in some way that in their situations I may have found the same conclusions on life, love and immortality. This setting, these elements; these are the building blocks of culture.

Nijo-Jo's Gardens

Nijo-Jo's Gardens

After countless photos of the grounds and having a tour of the interior spaces, I found myself recharged with lusting adrenaline and a new craving to know more about this land Kyoto, the capital of Japan before it knew the West. Turning my sails to the north I headed to Marutamachidori, a main east/west running street and the location of Kyoto Imperial Palace. I wouldn’t be storming the gates today, but at least wanted to scope the lay of the land.

Kyoto Imperial Palace’s landscape, like many parts of Kyoto, bears a tranquil serenity in the soothing summer air. Tapestries of the lush foliage cast shadows onto the sun-drenched golden walls of its perimeter. Doubling as a “Central Park” of the city, sporadic couplings of residents and their Shiba-Inus stroll through the grounds. The perfectly poised canines look quite at home in their native homeland.

Running low on daylight and having my fill of taking photos, I continued east on Marutamachidori hoping to at least cross the nearby river before heading in for the night. Halfway across the bridge I was stopped dead in my tracks by the ethereal beauty before me on the north side of the pass. I stepped into a nearby pedestrian alcove on the sidewalk, bewildered with the shear symphony of the river, the trees, the rocks, the people all flowing under the brilliance of the sunset. A sensation that I have only ever known there at that instant enclosed my presence; I have simply described this saying that the Earth hugged me–wallowed up and wrapped its arms around me with the utter perfection of this moment.

Kyoto's Loving Arms on Marutamachidori

Kyoto's Loving Arms on Marutamachidori

I entered Kyoto a broken, hobbling man, found something I had sought my entire life and carried on to seek its next treasure. Crossing this bridge I can only say that I was rewarded for my venture with an unfounded peace, and the absence of any pain or strife that I may have endured in arriving at that point. Japan’s warm summer winds from the southeast restored my faith in the reasons why I had gone there in the first place. As I said at Nijo-jo, seeing the elements of a culture made me better understand the people possessing the culture. On this bridge I knew that not only had the course of my future been affected, but I also held a greater admiration for my past and origins because had any one element in my life been different, then I may not have ever been here to see this myself. Kyoto became a part of me.

See Kyoto for its temples, palaces, castles, gardens, geishas and shops–but don’t forget to realize that the origins of all of those things stem from the very land itself.

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Harnessing My Inner Samurai in Osaka’s Eastern Mountains

Original story from August, 2006

In Katano Japan, when your hosts asks if you can ride a motorbike, the answer is always YES – even if the last time you mounted such a steed it ended with you rolling across the pavement while watching your friend’s motorcycle skid by. Seeing true Japanese drifting in the mountains outside of Osaka is by far worth the risk.

Taking my word for it, Takashi and I sped off into the warm summer night in search of the infamous racing circuits. My transport, his father’s motorbike, ran beautifully all the way to the fuel depot–our first stop and just far enough to get my confidence up for the rest of the journey. Staying true to their formal and hospitable reputation, Japanese gas station attendants wear full-mechanic jumpsuits make quick work of filling up our small tanks. The scent of gasoline ignites my courage for the rest of the trip and certainly not taking time to chit-chat, we proceed.

With as much of a roar as our small bikes could muster, I followed Takashi through a few more winding roads–driving on the left for the first time in my life, until I could soon hear the whining screams of performance Japanese engines; I knew we must be close. Coming to a new, wider road ahead of us I could see the cars brooding, searching for the next race. We merged onto their path before pulling off to meet some other observers stationed on the opposite side of the road. Takashi spoke with them for a bit, far too fast for me to understand, and explained that the races were higher up the mountain and that if I wanted to go, we would have to ride our bikes on the track…

Knowing that I only live once, I agreed to go for it and we took off on our bikes, climbing steadily into the dark mountains. Suddenly from behind I could hear an approaching predator, fast and blaring with its electric blue headlights–our first visitor, passing us furiously to continue the circuit. Then came others, most far enough away to just be loud, one coming so close I feared the concussion would’ve put me into the grassy, gravel shoulder. But we persevered and reached a lookout point with the cars, and motorcycles, below.

I soon realized that the bikes, buzzing like turbo-injected hornets, were in a tight line formation and that only the lead bike had his headlights on! Takashi explained that headlights sap electrical engine power and so to add into the thrills–and to take a competitive edge, bike racers will turn off their lights when hot on the pack leader until they are able to overtake him. This shocked and bewildered me, and despite the inherent danger in this, I didn’t see stupidity, I saw bravery–the kind that isn’t exactly common in everyday modern life. It started to make many things about Japan make sense, the high regard of honor, saving face, and now these young men – the “swordless” Samurai, willing to perfect their craft above all costs…they inspired me.

Circuit racing, what I was observing, has apparently gained in popularity in these mountains over drifting because the police have studded the roads with reflective beacons to deter drifters from crossing the lanes (while sliding sideways). Now on many roads the goal has become having the fastest lap times, and not necessarily an actual overtaking victory. After a while more, Takashi and I decided to head home, it was after all late given my 2-hour delay in arriving to Hirakata-shi, not Hirahata as I mistakenly had done…

Taking a few pointers from my Japanese compatriots, I rode as fast as I could down the mountain roads even to the point of maxing out the bike (appx. 45mph). Admittedly–Takashi was a bit hard to keep up with. Everything was smooth sailing until close to his house there was what I saw to be a construction site on the road with strobes, flashers and men in reflective blue vests (actually a Japanese sobriety checkpoint). Takashi was stopped ahead of me and then allowed to pass, I cautiously rode up and after hearing something indistinguishable in Japanese I uttered “wakarimasen” (I don’t understand) and the officer chuckled “ahh…uhh…alcohol check…please blow here.” Though put off as an American by the involuntary breathalyzer, I was damn happy not to be arrested–Takashi later found out that I should have had an international driving permit to operate the motorbike. We arrived safely at his home and I ended what was one of the most incredible nights of my life–all possible only because I believed the idea that there’s a little Samurai in all of us.

My host, friend and motorbike guide - Takashi

My host, friend and motorbike guide - Takashi

Author’s notes: Takashi was a friend I met through HospitalityClub.org– a way to meet friends and gain free lodgings almost anywhere in the world. Katano, his town is nestled just east of the region between Kyoto and Osaka Japan. My stay with him included not only this biking adventure, but more motored tours to temples, towns and sushi spots–even a Japanese grocery store. None of it would’ve been possible without the generosity of him and his family. As for pictures, Tak and I agreed that camera flashes are not a good idea for midnight mountain racers.