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Kyoto Part 3 of 6: The Night

The Kyoto Station is, in a word, enormous.

After Nagoya, Kyoto holds the country’s largest train station, along with a shopping mall, a department store, a hotel, a movie theater, and local government facilities all under its fifteen-story roof. With an overwhelming glass front, its modernism and futuristic style is impressive on its own, but is difficult to rectify with its role as being the portal through which the world finds Japan’s historical heart. It opened in 1997 after being built to commemorate Kyoto’s 1,200th anniversary. Nearly 250 feet high and more than 1,500 feet wide, the plans for the station were begun after hundreds of proposals were rejected, including several that included traditional Japanese architecture.

After I entered the station and found the tourist agency was closed for the day, I turned my back on the building and, with a rudimentary map I drew myself from a sign near the bus stop, I set out looking to eat, ignoring the reality that it was nearing 8pm and I still had no where to sleep.

I wandered in circles for a while until I felt comfortable with the feel of Kyoto, its grid-style street system a welcome treat after months in the mess of spaghetti streets of Tokyo. It was after 10pm and I had walked some distance by the time I walked into a smoky bar just a few blocks west of the station. I ate in an orange room with orange tables. Six Japanese men in their late twenties sat eating chicken wings with chopsticks and drinking beer washed down with laugher and comfort and home. They smoked cigarettes and poked fun at each other.

I ordered a Chinese noodle soup and opened my National Geographic travel book that has directed much of my travels so far. In time, the bar got more and more crowded and I was sharing my table with a couple guys a few years older than I am. I told them I was a student from Tokyo visiting Kyoto in my shaky Japanese. After they pointed out suggestions on my map and we exhausted our ability to communicate, I put my nose back in my guide.

I would head to Gion, the old entertainment and geisha district of Kyoto. It was a long walk east, passed the Kyoto Station and over the Kama-gawa River, but soon enough the 12am darkness was abuzz and replaced with neon lights and motion.

I circled the neighborhood, passing old chaya, teahouses, and ryokan, traditional inns, along with overwhelmingly-lit pachinko parlors and Western-style restaurants. In time, I found my way back to the banks of Kama-gawa River, darker and quieter, with the wide expanse of the river flowing in the night. I strolled its path, passing couples embraced and old men walking dogs.

I came to Kyoto without anywhere to sleep that night and was soon moved to make the banks of Kama-gawa my bed. I climbed up a small rock wall, tucked behind some bushes and covered with the reach of a weepy willow tree. I bedded down there, my stuffed bag as pillow and my still-damp towel as blanket, the first glimpse of Japanese stars I had found and the moon keeping watch on the occasional bicycle that passed along the path below. The night was crisp and cloudless, and I knew this would be a fine beginning to a fine trip.

I fell asleep late that Saturday night/Sunday morning, but my sleep along the Koma-gawa River in Kyoto wasn’t to last. It was around 3am that I was woken by something dripping on my face. My willow tree cover was more romantic than practical, as I looked to sky realized the stars were gone, the moon had left and my cloudless night have become anything but. It was raining.

My umbrella was, as my umbrellas have tended to be in Japan, in poor shape. To be accurate, it was less an umbrella than a limp heap of plastic occasionally strung to a loose-fitted collection of bend and broken metal bars. I closed it, put up my hood, heaped up my bag, heavy with books and four days of provisions, and headed back towards Kyoto Station in order to take cover.

I sat under a bus stop and, in between flipping pages of a book on Japanese culture, I shivered, watching the rain drizzle down and thinking, as I often do, about where I was at that very moment. Alone and damp and weighed down and burdened. Yet, at the same time, I was free and unencumbered, outside of a deserted bus depot, save for a smelly man who had a brief conversation with me and himself.

The night was beautiful and promising, and I fell asleep in its comfort. I was awakened by its dreary, rainy counterpart. So, it becomes important to realize that to our eyes the clouds move faster than the sun. The rain will pass. Tomorrow is another day, and, with any luck, you wake up to greet it, finding new opportunities with a new disposition.

I closed my book, nodded at the toothless woman who walked in circles and decided that my first day in Kyoto would begin at 3:47am.

Jaa ne,

Check back soon for Kyoto Part 5.

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