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Kyoto Part 2 of 6: The Road

I woke up to the bright sunlight of a glorious Tokyo Saturday morning. It was the weather that manages to find your doorstep just once every other week this time of year but is well worth the wait. It was before 8am so I lazily sauntered around my apartment, making breakfast, packing a lunch and scratching what needed to be scratched.

I ordered the apartment, locked her up to be empty for the next four days, and walked the 15 minutes to the Jiyugaoka train station. Ten weeks ago on the third day I was in Tokyo, I had some trouble finding my way to and home from Shinjuku, the busiest train station in the world. If you saw my first episode in Japan, you know that. Shinjuku was my destination, but on this day, there was no trouble. I knew it was easy then, I proved it was easy on Saturday.

From the Shinjuku Station, I stumbled my way out of the new south exit, clicking photos of the area’s skyscraper district. I found the highway bus ticket office and with the help of a kindly attendant, I picked up both my ticket to and from Kyoto. Still an hour until departure, I ventured out of the bus depot, intent on scurrying around Shinjuku, a huge portion of Tokyo of which I haven’t seen much.

The depot was in the southeast so I decided to find the bottom portion of Kabuki-cho, a famed Tokyo entertainment district. It was 10am, but I thought it was worth seeing the streets that manage to attract more than 500,000 people to the area’s restaurants and bars. Its reputation is a shady one to most tourists, known for having a distinct presence of the yakuza, the famous network of Japanese mafia. Moreover, of the 3,000 entertainment outlets of East Shinjuku’s Kabuki-cho, 500 are devoted to sleaze, according to National Geographic. Nightly, the neon lights overtake the sky and mostly naked kinban gyaru – signpost girls – crowd the sidewalks.

Not surprisingly, the streets, metal-doored entrances, and shuttered windows were like so many others I had seen in Tokyo. There were bodies sharing the sidewalks with me and the sound of street cleaners fought with a light wind. I made a circle and met my bus in the depot. I asked the conductor at least four times if it was the correct bus, determined to avoid getting lost, at least not yet. *If you haven’t been lost, you haven’t traveled. Still, I wanted to start in the right.

It was the right bus (See Photos in Kyoto Album). I nestled into my comfortable seat, slipped into the slippers provided for me and leaned my head on the glass, a reflection in my eyes and a song in my mind.

The road would wind south, taking me by the Mount Fuji I had climbed more than two months prior. As I had remembered, Tokyo raced the bus, skyscraping buildings and expansive billboards following my gaze for nearly an hour. Slowly, metropolitan Tokyo puttered out, the buildings shrinking into multistory apartment buildings which flowed into power-line-covered suburban homes.

With time, the green-treed pyramids clashing and forming together that I met on my way to Fuji returned, and I exchanged a smile for their beleaguered grins. Those huge backed beasts of rock covered in green trees are pimpled with radio towers, an often criticized sign of Japan’s technologically-deficient environmental policy, of which there are many.

When I could find a break in the power lines and towers, the view was powerful. Providing the type of view that makes you think looking isn’t enough, that you have to do something, like collecting it in a box to show to your friends.

You see, despite the suburban sprawl that goes on below, other than the power lines, Japanese mountains are almost always simply and beautifully green and aimless altitude changes. For millennia, the people of Honshu believed the mountains were for the gods and inhabiting them was taboo. The result being that the feet of these mountains are overrun with Japanese homes, but the mountains themselves are still often uninhabited (See Photos in Kyoto Album).

But those power lines. Scan your U.S. neighborhood, drive through the beauty of the American west, so much of our electrical sources have been buried in the ground in the past few decades. How is Japan so far behind? Its environmentalism is largely a joke.*

The bus window had water spots obscuring my view as if no one cared to look out. Looking around the bus it seemed as though my fellow passengers justified the window’s lack of cleanliness. Still, for me, there were moments when electrical lines subsided, and I breathed in a bit of rural Japanese splendor.

The agriculture of Japan is small business, meaning a lot of family farms with village rice paddies and small fields of wheat or thatch, not the 10,000 acre ranches or the multimillion dollar agribusiness corporate farms of today’s rural America.

Even spotting Japanese homes that weren’t directly adjacent was a unique sight for me, previously relegated to tightly packed Tokyo. In the background, two mountain peaks would frame a third, more distant rise in the distance, blued by the sky and chased by the clouds.

How could I have ever even thought of taking an overnight bus?

By 3:30pm, the bus shook me awake from a drowsy state of semi-consciousness as it settled at the Komagatake rest stop. I took the steps off the bus onto the parking lot, wiping my eyes, and found a chilly world around me, an empire of sprawling shadows of clouds feuding with a mishmash of greenery at the horizon.

I went to the bathroom and stared wide-eyed at the walls that made where I stood more a valley than a paved rest area. I climbed back onto the bus, and, after a head count, the bus quietly engaged and trudged on.

As Japanese speakers tend to do when I feel I need to understand them, using the bus’s intercom, the driver spoke at length once the bus regained speed on the highway. As he mumbled on, I decided I would pretend he was reading a book to all the passengers, trying to settle us all into a comfortable nap, ignoring his directions. I closed my eyes, regularly reopening them as if trying to catch the Japanese scenery as it tried to sneak an amazing sight past my weakening guard.

We passed an occasional Shinto graveyard, a mess of closely packed small stone towers ornately engraved and gated at the foot of the legends of the surrounding mountain-scape.

Nearing six pm, the bus stopped in Yoro, in what, I assumed, would be the last stop before we reached our destination. Bag in hand, I strode into the darkening early evening and walked to the bathroom, anxious to be able to say that I had brushed my teeth in a crowded Japanese rest stop.

I once again nestled into my seat and thought how much I loved traveling on the roads of this world. How there are few places I would rather be than in an automobile on a beautiful day driving by the astounding sights that make the postcard industry profitable. You see, I love the pursuit of an adventure, the planning and following through and the preparation. Why do I love the bus or the car, always going somewhere, but never happy when I’m there?

But that bus will stop in time. You will have to get off and make choices. There is a fear in that. En route, there is only the thought of what is to come, the wonder of the gloriously expectant but unknown. Arrival means challenge and thinking and doing. Decisions bring death to the ignorant.

Not long after 6:30pm, the bus pulled left past a sign that read Yokachi. After forty minutes of traffic, there was a rustle of my fellow passengers readying their bags and with a lurch, we had arrived at Kyoto Station.

Click Here to continue on to Part 3: The Night

Jaa ne,
* If this interests you, be absolutely certain to check back in the coming weeks, because I will be posting a fully-researched, scathing attack on the Japanese government’s relationship with the environment.

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