Adventures in Kyoto and Beyond
I knew ground zero was going to hit me, especially after my recollections of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial and even more so because it was my own country that dropped the bomb. This latter fact is also why I wanted to visit as a way of paying whatever respect I could. And also to learn context never taught to us in school, as we did from a descendant of both survivors and deceased who welcomes visitors to the peace park with a multilingual binder of his family’s story and a slew of facts about the sheer recklessness of the entire atomic project.
The Peace Park and its monuments are to be experienced with patience. The Atomic Dome, a building carefully preserved in its blasted state as a perpetual silent witness. The memorial to Miekichi Suzuki, father of Japanese children’s literature. The underground monument near the museum, a slow spiral descent between concrete walls gridded with simple squares, conveying the weight of destruction in its austerity of placards and architecture. The extensive recollections at the bottom of said monument – a film of stories from families of killed children, more such stories available on monitors and in the attached library, a wall of slowly scrolling names that had me taking a break to compose myself. The museum itself, overflowing with crowds of students on field trips, its displays of context and artifacts plenty powerful even in glimpses over uniformly hatted heads.
On the way back, we came across curling mascot gachapon, picked up as a small gift for a friend who plays, and an okonomiyaki shop at the train station eagerly offering to accommodate food sensitivities. Though this wasn’t one of our more ambitious walking days, the lingering gravity of ground zero had me zonked enough to nod off on the train back.
Thinking to catch some local music and theater, I researched and booked two shows of particular interest that happened to be near each other with a convenient gap in between. The day’s logistics also accommodated lunch at Biotei, spotted during prior travels and very much worth the game of human Tetris required to squeeze into a seat in its packed second floor quarters.
I went into Gears with no particular expectation of what this popular variety show of motion to music might involve beyond the acts listed on the board crediting that day’s cast. I figured I would be pleasantly surprised well enough by its skill and artistry. Instead I was blown away – by a heartfelt tale of robots told in break dance and juggling and stage magic and some incredible work of miming, by the delights of cleverly styled lighting and a regular dose of slapstick, and in a literal sense by a temporary climactic mess explaining the long gap between shows.
Spousal Unit and I had come across Spring Valley Brewery en route to Gears. We returned for a sampler, soaked up with pickles and puffy cheese sticks, before heading off to Ippodo Tea as recommended by Anna. After selecting an assortment to bring home, we had time to enjoy a small pot apiece in the tea house, with a cheerful server walking us through the finer points of brewing our respective varieties. I had some special sort that tasted strongly of grass and was best consumed with the bean paste sweet served along with it.
RAN Theatre was difficult to find, tucked away near a luckily familiar corridor of Nishiki Market. From our early claim of a front row seat, we ordered daikon salad and edamame to share, black curry for Spousal Unit, and spicy tuna sushi for me that was double the expected size and very much serious about its advertised level of heat.
Intimate as RAN Theatre was, its musicians could have filled a concert hall. With stunning precision and full throttle appreciation to be there, they smiled through an energetic medley of Japanese music both traditional and contemporary presented with plenty of bilingual context. They engaged the audience even further with placard-assisted singalongs and a participation segment in which Spousal Unit made his taiko drum debut.
The Final Day
With nothing particular in mind beyond a previously discovered vegan cafe, and rather slowed to a trundle by its enormous and delicious portions of curry and wheat meat, we headed to Gion for the cause of Pokemon Go, which had led Spousal Unit and I down various as yet unseen routes over the course of our trip. The invite-only raid was in the particularly charming section near both our kaiseki dinner and formal wear photo shoot. As Spousal Unit joined various other people on their phones nearby, I found a nearby museum of cloisonne and metalwork to visit afterward. The exquisite collection, viewed in all its detail through magnifying glasses in the display cases, included a video demonstrating techniques of the trade and a second floor featuring ornate containers hung from kimono obi to carry various belongings.
On the shopping streets near Kiyomizu-dera, much more sedate on an early weekday afternoon, we finally found the Hello Kitty cafe Cassie had suggested to us. I went for the parfait she had recommended, a huge but airy confection of strawberry gelatin cubes, whipped cream, marshmallow, corn flakes, and a small scoop of ice cream. Then it was off to an actual cat cafe, more about sitting with the cats than playing with them because we had hit the slow afternoon hour of snoozing, which was starting to make me sleepy as well. The next attraction – a multi-floor legendary sex shop vaguely heard about and happened upon at random, and zipped through because when in Rome, why the hell not – was anything but somnolent.
Our final day was bittersweet though I was getting that feel of readiness to go home. Last onigiri and protein milk for breakfast. Last shower perched on the edge of the small tub rather than stooping under the spray. Last time putting on shoes in the tiny footwell of our apartment. Last walk to Kyoto Station, easier than fussing with the bus – or easy for me to say with Spousal Unit’s superpowers for hauling our heavy suitcase over the stairs of pedestrian footbridges.
The bullet train was straightforward as always, the local from Nagoya to the airport not so much until we asked directions and then remembered to cross the street to its station. Once in, the signs were fine, and the English announcement of approaching train going to Chubu Centrair much appreciated. We arrived in plenty of time for one last leisurely round of conveyor belt sushi and snack shopping for friends who kindly agreed to shovel the snowstorm hitting back home in our absence.
Movies. Cognac. Stunning sunrise over Alaska. Ice cream much needed by my developing sore throat. Bathroom dance throughout the customs line ride. Writing over airport wifi in multiple hours of layover. Cookies and cream Quest bar surprisingly underwhelming after three weeks without. A short hop home, during which I finally nodded off, and whose fog and darkness somehow made it seem the longest leg of all. The experience of transpacific flight, from its length to inherent confoundment of sleep deprivation, crossed a rubicon of separation between the vacation world and ours. Though the cats compressed three weeks of missed fussing into every waking hour of the weekend, and there was that entire matter of jet lag and an empty fridge, it was as if we’d never left. The throat tickle I came back with blew up into bronchitis, and this year’s November holiday had me giving thanks for the powers of antibiotics and inhalers.
Thoughts and Recommendations
This trip went about as well as it could from being organized by a couple of randoms with minimal knowledge of the local language. Throughout our travels, English was widely enough understood and offered in print that we got along just fine by asking questions and occasionally breaking out a visual translation app to check labels for hidden meat. We also chose our own priorities with popular attraction lists as inspiration – which rather boiled down to me arranging whatever and Spousal Unit going along, but that’s what typically works for us.
Prepaid SIM cards were our savior on that first night of public transportation fail and a subsequent facilitator of exploration and discovery. Some hotels offer heavily locked phones for basic navigation. We loved the freedom to access our own mail, messaging, social media, and map pins. It was challenging to find some pin-shaped object to pop the card drawer in a stateside airport without any kiosks dedicated to this service, but that minor hassle was infinitely worth the convenience of phone data.
There’s much to be said for getting situated in a place that you can see yourself enjoying for the course of the stay. It did make this vacation feel longer than our tour of China, where we were just about constantly on the go, but it gave more opportunity to chill out and wander, to relax in addition to seeing. Kyoto was a constant font of nifty details, from the timeless charm of individual homes to yet another shop or cafe or restaurant to investigate. I would love to go back and see more of Japan, but this was a very good way to go for an introduction.