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Kyoto, full moon, Nora's birthday

We are in Kyoto, and praise be to whatever Gods, deities, sprites, protectors and so on who are watching over us, because they all had to work overtime to get us here. Said deities included several bemused elderly women who we accosted along the way, begging for help in broken Japanese, as we tried (and largely failed) to navigate the train stations, bus systems, and street maps of this great nation.

I had forgotten just how ridiculously arduous travel in Japan can be. Thirty years away from a place tends to shroud one's memory in a rosy haze. But it's all coming back now--especially (with stark clarity) the memory of arriving in Japan in 1992 (having come to teach English at a juku) with a far-too enormous suitcase. To be fair, I was coming for an extended stay (it would end up being two years) but what a battle it was with that behemoth! Lugging it up and down the train station stairways at Osaka (to the annoyance of fellow travelers); cramming into the tiny trunk of the car of the owner of the juku I'd arrived to teach at, and ultimately, trying to get it up three flights of very narrow stairs into the exceedingly tiny (like 6x12) apartment where I was to live. And then, of course, trying to figure out where to store it for the next two years!

Ah, memories. One wishes they served a more useful, instructive purpose. Say, for example, to keep one from repeating mistakes. Alas, that doesn't seem to be the case in my experience.

After a mad scramble to Tetris all our belongings into our suitcases at the Shinjuku BnB (did I mention I packed too much?) we schelpped to Shibuya station to activate our JR passes. This involved locating, visiting, and annoying the staff at three different JR offices before finding the specific one at which said activation could be accomplished. Once we found it, the service staff was nice as could be of course (that's been our experience in Japan so far ... Extended, excruciating effort followed by extremely kind and tender handling.) Anyway, once the passes were obtained, we each had to get a special stamp from a special person. But then all was well. We got our ekiben (bentos for eating on the train) and we were off to the races, mostly.

The Shinkansen is divine. I would like to live on the Shinkansen. It is very comfortable and convenient and (as advertised) fast. Too fast, almost; our time in that paradise of ease and convenience was not enough. We arrived at Kyoto station around 2:30 pm and I thought, "whatever will we do to kill time before we can check in to our ryokan?" Strains of "yakety sax" began playing softly in the background.

Finding the bus proved insanely difficult. It would have been less so if we'd just had to good sense to leave via the correct exit (the one that would have taken us directly to the buses) instead of going out the wrong exit, which resulted in having to navigate the most ridiculous series of obstacles (elevators to nowhere, stairs that went down and then up and still didn't get us to the buses, and so on.) When we finally got on the right bus it was going the wrong way. And then Nora's suitcase broke.

A few things I've learned from our time in Japan so far:

  1. Never trust Google Maps

  2. Elderly Japanese people are extremely helpful. Most Japanese people are extremely helpful, I just tend to accost the elderly, because I figure they're more likely to take pity on one of their own.

  3. Those pully-outy handles on rolling suitcases break with disappointing frequency. This is exactly the same thing that happened when I was in Bangkok, with the same result--you're stuck with a huge broken thing you have to figure out how to get rid of, as well as how to replace. Additionally, you have to scramble to learn the phrase, "sorry, my bag is broken, I am unable to place it in the tiny compartment you wish me to place it" in a whole new language. (Note: unlike Google maps, Google translate is *very* helpful)

  4. If you think you are going in the right direction, you are not. Immediately turn around and go the other way.

  5. There isn't a 5 my travel addled brain can come up with right now, but I need to have a 5 to keep this list from being 4, which, I am told, is an unlucky number. So I guess 5 is, always get ekiben when you're traveling by Shinkansen; it's the done thing, and ekiben are delicious. Oh, also, don't pack too much.

Ultimately, after much agita, we arrived at our ryokan--a 100 year old traditional Japanese house--and it is absolutely lovely. Our hosts are cheerful and sweet (the proprietor had a birthday gift waiting for Nora) and there is tea and a kotatsu and somehow, against all odds, all our suitcases fit in the futon closet. We've got clean towels and yukatas.

Being in Kyoto is like releasing a pent-up breath. It's much more relaxed and calm here, the energy is less harried and jangled than Tokyo. Here, I believe we will be equal to the challenge of acquiring a new suitcase and (I hope, with the help of more patient, indulgent citizens) figuring out how to ship the other one home on some slow boat, packed with all our spare junk and the omiyage and omamori we collected in Tokyo.

And in other news, today is our big day in Kyoto! It's Nora's birthday, and there are many plans afoot, which I shall blog about later. They include kimono-wearing, tea-ceremony drinking, full moon viewing, and dinner the restaurant of a 3-star Michelin chef. Now, however, I'm going to have my morning tea and sit under the kotatsu a bit until Nora wakes up.

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