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Kyoto Part 1 of 6: The Plans

There are 15 national holidays in Japan. Last Monday was Taiiku No Hi, or Health and Sports Day, to commemorate the opening day of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. It was an important day to many Japanese, a sign that their country had recovered from the destruction of World War II. To me, the day was motivation, not reflection. You see, the undergraduate program at my school took Tuesday off as well. This meant a four day weekend and therefore necessitated something particularly exciting to continue my devotion to travel at each week’s end. I have not failed you.

In my first two and half months in Japan, I have had a great deal of difficulty getting out of metropolitan Tokyo. About this I have lamented before. I went to Yokohama, supposedly the country’s second largest city, but the Japanese laughed at this. I went to Kamakura, a former Japanese capital, but they told me no. I have been to Shibuya and Shinjuku, with populations and infrastructures and even histories that made them capable of being large cities on their own, but, they suffered the same fate at Kichijoji, where I watched a fall festival.

They were swallowed by the expanding and swirling concrete mixers and construction contracts of bestially uncontrolled Tokyo. My first weekend I went hours south to climb Mount Fuji, but some tell me Tokyo even runs to the feet of Fuji-san. In my first two and half months in Japan, I have been visiting Tokyo, not Japan. I couldn’t find Tokyo’s end.

This past four day weekend was my first undisputed foray into a Japan without a postal code of the world’s largest city. I decided that if there was only one other place a typical sightseer needed to see in Japan beyond Tokyo’s cemented forest, it would be Kyoto.

Kyoto, along with the cities Nara, Osaka and Kobe, make up the center of the Kansai region, the yin to Tokyo’s yang. Or maybe the yang to Tokyo’s yin? I’m not sure, that’s Chinese philosophy anyway. My point is that if this was going to be my only chance to legitimately leave all of the Tokyo beast behind me – which I hope it isn’t – Kyoto was the way to do it.

Indeed, Kyoto was founded more than 1,200 years ago and, thanks to its survival of World War II bombings, it is home to Japan’s greatest collection of traditional culture. In a place like Japan, having the country’s greatest collection of tradition means something.

After being founded in 794, Kyoto had a millennia long ride as Japan’s capital and with its wealth of cultural treasures, it is, according to National Geographic, “the single greatest tourist destination in Japan.”

Indeed, while by The Shinkansen, Japan’s famed system high speed railway lines, Tokyo is just a three hour jaunt from Kyoto, an increasing number of foreign and domestic visitors stick to Japan’s historical core.

So, Kyoto it was. Without a Japanese Rail Pass, which only becomes sensible after weeks of extended train travel, the Shinkansen can be intolerably expensive, so I decided I would stick to the time honored method of bus travel.

With the help of a native speaker, I had myself a spot on an 8 hour bus trip heading to Kyoto Saturday morning and coming back Tuesday morning for 10,000 yen ($84 USD). An overnight bus, my friends, would have been (a little) cheaper and given me (a little) more time, but, there are nearly 400 miles between Kyoto and Tokyo, 400 miles for my eyes to see, for my mind to decode, for my heart to absorb.

I would see a bit of rural Japan, in decline at a rate far greater than American agriculture. Forget its history and perceptions of subsistence rice farming, about 5 percent of the country’s labor force rests in the ag-industry but nets less than 2 percent of Japan’s gross national product, despite heavy government subsidies. It is small, it is getting smaller. They are poor, they are getting poorer. My bus trip there would be a sight unto itself.

That meant three nights and two full days of Kyoto rampaging: I set about finding a place to stay. A ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel, are tourist favorites, with their wooden architecture and kimono-clad employees, but they are generally very… very expensive. A western hotel would be both expensive (for me) and terribly uninteresting. I am a man of limited means in pursuit of challenging experiences. Hostels, cheap, communal living, are wonderful options.

However, I was doing all of this the week I set to leave so, to my surprise, I found reservations were scarce. I found one hostel that provided any opening at all. I booked a bed for Sunday and Monday night at 2,500 yen a night ($21 USD). Let me summarize. I would be leaving Shinjuku Station in Tokyo Saturday morning and arriving in Kyoto Saturday night. I had a hostel reservation for Sunday night and Monday night, before I would take a bus Tuesday morning, getting me back to Tokyo Tuesday night. There was a gap in my planning, you see. I had no home for Saturday night.

I am not one to worry about such matters. No one can interrupt what I will call an adventure.


Less than a year ago, the Mainichi Daily News reported that Kyoto, the only major Japanese city to entirely avoid wartime bombing, was listed as one of the top ten vacation spots that Japanese travelers never wanted to visit again. Common gripes were that the city was crowded and expensive. It isn’t clear if these people were at all familiar with their country’s capital. I had been in Tokyo for nearly ten weeks, Kyoto was going to be an adventure and pure vacation.

Jaa ne,

Click Here to continue on to Part 2: The Road

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