From Tokyo to Kyoto
It’s been a long time since I traveled, especially to somewhere new. My oldest son is three now, and I’ve only had a few business trips since he was born. Those were all to SAP headquarters in Germany, and that’s a stark contrast to pre-baby days, when there were periods that I was away from home for nearly a week a month. Furthermore, I haven’t been to Asia since my Master’s degree in the early 1990s. So I knew I was in for a shock … everything from the anticipated culture shock to the massive time difference.
I had organized my trip so that my friend and fellow anthropologist Inga Treitler and I would travel and stay together. I knew it would permit me to explore with less trepidation (much better to be lost in a strange city with someone you know and like!), and of course it was a great way to keep the costs down.
It really is amazing how quickly all familiar things get challenged in a new place. When we got off the plane, we stopped in a rest room. We immediately encountered the Japanese toilets, including stalls with the option to wash your bottom. Oh. Can you really do that in a public place? I was curious, but not curious enough to try in the first bathroom I visited! As we headed to passport control, I felt overwhelmed by the people everywhere. All of them would naturally verge left as we approached, and of course, because we’re used to being in the US we would try to verge right. And so (in addition to the fact that I didn’t sleep the night before my trip and I didn’t sleep well on the plane), I was immediately frazzled and disoriented!
There was one weird moment at passport control. Above our heads in line there was a sign that said if we did not consent to photographs and fingerprints that we would not be allowed to enter Japan. It seemed … well … unwelcoming. I would have taken a picture except that we were not permitted to use cameras in the area. It also made me realize how relatively loose our practices are in the US. Or, maybe in the US we are just more secretive about it? I don’t know. I had a terrible mugshot and fingerprints, a temporary visa stapled into my passport, and then we made our way to the tourist information desk to find a cash machine and buy train tickets.
I fumbled my way through my first cash withdrawal and purchasing of tickets for the bullet train to Kyoto. The train station was really clean and quiet, and the train itself was long and fast and so impressive the first time we saw it pull in:
I was also very appreciative of the fact that things were generally very well translated into English, making it possible to travel in a completely foreign place without getting totally lost. For example, the signs on the platform alternate between Japanese and English:
We were cutting it a little bit close and the Japanese trains run on time, so we didn’t dare stop to buy something to eat and drink. I did look longingly at the vending machine, with it’s glowing fluorescent temptations. But we just didn’t have time to decipher the signage, our newfound cash, etc. Over the course of the trip we would see these over and over again, tucked into corners and built into the sides of buildings.
I was so so tired and hungry by the time we got on the train. Although it was a weekday night, the train was jammed. On top of that, the amount of personal space allocated to passengers is just less, so there was nowhere to put my suitcase except vertically between my legs. I ate a granola bar from my emergency snack stash, and promptly fell asleep for the two hours of our train ride, dirty head on dirtier suitcase. I felt briefly like I was back in high school or college, traveling with a backpack and not a care in the world!
When we finally arrived in Kyoto, we finally had a moment to breathe, since we knew we were in the home stretch. Inga had brilliantly remembered to print the instructions for how to get to the hotel shuttle, so we worked our way through the Kyoto train station towards the McDonald’s. As we got close, I recognized that fakey fried smell, which was weird and jarring after all the other amazing things we had seen during our travels. Here is a little kitchen supply and food-to-go shop in the Kyoto train station:
Strange contrast to McDonald’s, wouldn’t you agree? I would have been tempted to browse and explore and taste if we hadn’t been so unbelievably tired and ready to be at our destination …
After a quick shuttle ride to our hotel, Inga and I grabbed a light dinner at the hotel, took showers, and finally finally got to sleep. What an unbelievably long couple of days – I am already wishing there was a way to teleport home.
More on our Kyoto adventures in an upcoming post …