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.
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.
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.
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.