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Saturday, Aug. 8, 2009


How to get lost in Kyoto

A young couple from Norway were talking about their travels in Japan. "We weren't that impressed with Kyoto," they said. "It was too hard to get around."

A week later, I found myself in Kyoto with my 15-year-old niece who was visiting me from the United States. As a 17-year resident of Japan and having taken tourists to Kyoto over a dozen times, we naturally passed up tour guide brochures that said things like "Kyoto Free Walk!" (Since when did they start charging people to walk around Kyoto anyway?).

But you can always count on guests to bring out the worst in you. It's times like these that you are reminded how much you don't know. About anything. While you attempt to get by on intelligence and wit, your non-Japanese speaking, first-time-abroad, 15-year-old guest will inevitably be the one who can guide you right to the spot. As I was looking intently at the map to get back to Kyoto Station, for example, my niece would say, "What's that big building right in front of us with the Shinkansen passing through it?"

When we first arrived in Kyoto and we went to check in to our hotel, I followed the instructions from the hotel's English website: "It is on foot 7 minutes from the Karasuma Oike alighting south entrance of No. 5 with a subway in JR Kyoto station."

But alas, upon "alighting with a subway" (boy was that thing heavy!) at exit No. 5, waiting for us at the top of the stairs was not one, but four directions: North, South, East and West. And carrying around a subway wasn't making it any easier.

At this point I probably should have hailed a taxi. But why take a taxi when the hotel is only seven minutes away? I mean, it's a hotel. It's got to be here somewhere!

Finally, after trying a couple different directions in the pouring down rain, my niece said, "Why don't we just take a taxi?" And there must be some shortage of consonants in Kyoto, because everything seems to have the same name, or have a similar one from which it robbed a few consonants.

For example, when we went to Arashiyama, we went to Torokko Arashiyama Station to catch the Sagano Torokko Ressha to Torokko Kameoka Station. You can also board the train at the Torokko Saga Station, which is the same place as the JR Saga-Arashiyama Station. The Sagano Torokko Ressha runs along the Sagano Line which, by the way, is written on the maps as the Sanin Line. Good luck!

In Arashiyama, we decided to rent bicycles for the afternoon. The nice Japanese lady who rented us the bicycles said, "I'm sorry, all we have is this Japanese map." No problem, I thought. Until I tried to read the map, which is when I realized I didn't have my glasses. The thing is, I don't even own a pair of glasses!

The print was so small, that no matter how much I narrowed my eyes, squinted, and winked at the kanji, I couldn't make out many of the names. Plus there was a host of unfamiliar kanji. I mean, have you ever seen the kanji for Sanin? Neither had I.

"Can you read the map?" asked my niece. "Yes, dear, of course I can," I said.

After more intensive squinting sessions, from which I established that the big boulevard through the center of town was actually a river, we somehow made it around to all the sites in Arashiyama in exactly the opposite order we had intended. But no matter, being lost is really just a state of mind. I highly recommend it, especially when there is no other option.

When we got back to our hotel, I noticed the reception had a pile of English maps of Kyoto. I was overjoyed. But after looking at the handwritten map, I realized it didn't have any of the train or subway stations on it. It did have a lot of other things written on it however, such as "Meet Sara here 6:00 p.m." and "John said to go here." Apparently the hotel had lost the original map long ago so when it came around to replenishing the supply, they just copied one that was already marked up.

It had been copied so many times, that it was almost entirely gray scale. Half of all the names on the left side of the map fell off into oblivion (Who wants to go to half a place?) and I found the street names all huddling in the margin at the bottom of the map as if someone had moved them down there to get them out of the way. On the right side of the map was the Kamo River, but they didn't bother to put in the subway stations on the opposite side of the river.

We managed to find our way around Kyoto nonetheless, but I have to admit that all day I had a sinking suspicion that someone was going to come up to us and charge us for walking. And one can only imagine what the fine would have been for walking while carrying a subway.

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