TOIRRETU. THIS IS A WORD every foreign traveler in Japan should know, unless they are fond of doing that awkward dance one does when trying not to wet themselves. But don’t expect to find this word, dear reader, in the pages of Lonely Planet’s Kyoto City Guide. Though they have devoted in their glossary an entry for the word sabi — “a poetic ideal of finding beauty and pleasure in imperfection; often used in conjunction with wabi” — the LP staff thought it unnecessary to include the correct Japanese pronunciation for “toilet.”
And so there I was, aboard one of the sleekest and fastest trains in the world, painfully trying to communicate with the ticket-taker. “Batharoomu wa doko deska?” I asked, hoping that if slid a few Japanese-sounding vowels into my English that he would understand.
He didn’t. He cocked his head to the side for a moment, and then with an Ah! it seemed to click. Then, using his arms to make an “X” he said, “No Batharoomu.” And so I went back to my seat, confused and squirmy with two hours ahead.
We began day two in a sleep-deprived haze. The airy formality that floated around the La Soeur’s dining hall made our first morning in a new country even more surreal. There was a soft aural glow in the background, the tinkling notes of Debussy. Dressed in corduroy, a plaid flannel and Garmont hiking boots (in anticipation of snow and rain) I must have been a strange sight to the sharply attired Japanese tourists as I selected from the buffet a pickled plum, some pancakes and a cut of grilled fish.
Buffets have always been dangerous enigmas to me; in trying to maximize the bang for buck I often wind up with wildly mismatching tastes. I peered around jealously at the plates prepared by the other guests. A man in his early 30s had a dainty stack of greens accompanied by rice, miso soup and an assortment of sides like tamago and roe.
Looking to avoid another JPY1500 cab ride, we asked the concierge to direct us towards the nearest subway station, which happened to be right around the corner. Our first tube ride in Japan was pleasant in all the subtle ways that count: the alert for the arriving train cooed rather than clanged; no leers from other passengers; no harsh stops on the part of the conductor. There was an indescribable quality about the 10-minute experience (which we felt on train rides in Kyoto and Osaka as well) that was altogether different from any we’d had in Seoul. So far our best guess is that the lighting made the cars appear cleaner. But I also suspect the difference was mainly internal — a change of scenery, a unfamiliar route map and stops being announced in another language.
Converting our Japan Rail exchange passes into the real deal was a cinch, though due largely to the station employee’s fluid command of English (it certainly wasn’t our Japanese). In short order we had our two tickets to Shin-Osaka Station and our transfers on to Kyoto. We opted for a 30-minute stopover instead of the ambitious 6 minutes suggested by our friend at the station window.
As we shoved off into the simple fields of the Japanese countryside, my sleepy eyes widened and took in the scenery we were hurtling past. Despite a moment of uncomfortable panic, I eventually did find the bathroom to the fore of our car — though I imagine I’ll never know what the ticket-taker thought I was asking. Janice began to fall asleep just as I settled back into my seat.
Clusters of two-story wooden houses with shining tiled roves were surrounded by great, bucolic expanses that ran up to the hilt of mountains lush with evergreens. Every so often we would run past denser suburbs populated by large apartments with laundry hanging outside. These were the kinds of places I’d imaged Murakami characters inhabited — where beneath the serene surface the fabric of someone’s reality could be giving way to madness. I wondered for a moment whether we might pass the home of famed travel writer Pico Iyer, who I’d read, with a flicker of jealousy, resides in “suburban Japan.”
With two train rides through different countries stacked so closely together, Janice and I were again led to try and understand the stark differences we perceived. While speeding by at 300 kilometers per hour hardly provides a solid base for analytical judgements, it seemed undeniable that on many surface levels the quality of life in Japan was much higher than in Korea — if only by virtue of the fact that its citizens were afforded the space to breathe and the option of owning real houses, as opposed to being crammed into cheaply made apartments reminiscent of the Soviet bloc.
We passed Tokuyama, an industrial but clean-cut looking port city with rust around its edges. The dark islands in the bay, however, looked untouched. They sat in idle silence at the mouth of the endless Pacific, as the shimmers of waves passed along their shores.
The ticket-taker and the snack cart lady both bowed slowly and gracefully as they entered and exited our car, without regard to whether anyone was paying attention.
We pulled into Shin-Osaka station and were met by bustling masses as we tried to figure out which track would take us to Kyoto. Once we had, we bought ourselves a bento box for JPY1000 that was as colorful as a Bob Ross palette — purple octopus, pink ume, grass-green snow peas and yellow squares of sweet fried egg. As soon as we started rolling we began picking away; we arrived just as we closed the lid and were still licking our lips.
I read in my Lonely Planet that tourists were often shocked by the urban face of modern Kyoto, as though most anticipated the ancient capital as it might have appeared towards the beginning of the Meiji Restoration. Perhaps because I had read this, I held no such fantasies. Kyoto tower and the electric tingle of the city center was luring and delightful, and surprisingly quiet in itself. But it wasn’t until we wandered off the main Karasuma-dori in search our ryokan that I fell in love.
Kyoto is a city that is low to the ground. Even in downtown, aside from the main shopping district, most buildings are stacked just four or five stories at the tallest. A healthy amount are two-story wooden structures that, through both the whole of their presence and more subtle details, give off a humble but distinguished air hearkening back to old Japan — like cedar barrels whose insides are still fragrant with the sake they used to house.
The charm of the narrow lanes and people on bicycles was distracting as our eyes searched for Yanaginobanba-dori, the street where our guesthouse was located. Guided by a helpful store owner, we came upon where we would be spending our next few nights; a subdued chime called our attention to the doorway as we watched the bamboo curtains sway.
Itoii (forgive the spelling) spoke fluent English, though he played down this accomplishment by telling us he’d simply watched a lot of American television. He smiled genuinely with a kind of buoyancy rarely seen at hotels, and pointed us in the direction of the Imperial Palace Park as he took our bags, saying our rooms would be ready by four.
Despite a nip in the air, we meandered down Yanaginobanba at a pace befitting summer. Had we been on film, the peace of the street would have lent itself towards a soundtrack played by the Pizzicato Five — perhaps their version of “The Girl from Ipanema.” We even passed a turquoise church with a palm tree in its yard that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on some long-forgotten island colonial outpost. Though I’d worried about taking our first vacation as a married couple somewhere cold and so far from the beach, the air seemed filled with a honeymoon breeze.
The park was enormous and surprisingly verdant considering the season. It was the first time in months that Janice or I had been in such a greenspace; mountains, not skyscrapers, dominated the horizon. As we walked we felt the walls we’d built to cope with the constant proximity to others begin to melt away. We drank in full breaths of piny air as gravel crunched underfoot and the slanted rays of dusk began to cast shadows on the great, wooden roofs that had once sheltered emperors.
As the sky filled with the ink of evening, the lamps of Kyoto illuminated. We strolled underneath the red glow of the Teramachi shopping arcade, searching for the perfect spot for our first meal in the city as our bellies began to grumble in louder, more eager tones. Reaching the edge of hungry desperation, we stumbled across a little place called Cafe Lulu advertising Locomoco — a Hawaiian specialty — on a chalkboard outside.
We ducked into the doorway and up a creaking flight of stairs to be greeted by warmth and the sound of a ukulele. We were seated by a young waitress in low chairs next to the window and shed our winter layers. There was something about the cafe that seemed removed from time and place; the decor was minimalist and distinctly Japanese but also gave off a subtle 70s American tiki vibe. As a voice in English came over the stereo, we soon realized we were actually listening to a Hawaiian radio station, though we couldn’t be certain whether it had been taped or was being streamed online.
Our dinner arrived: steaming plates of rice with fried egg and hamburger, all slathered in Teriyaki sauce (Jan chose the more traditional curry). We took big, satisfying bites and then sat back, looking at each other and smiling. Soft Polynesian vocal melodies hung in the air; the city felt like an island in the middle of a stretching night.