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There and Back Again – A Gaijin’s Tale

July 22, 2009

Originally Published 09/09/2007)

So… Yesterday I walked to Kyoto.

I got up leisurely, had a quick breakfast of toast and marmalade, and put on my travelling clothes.  I put on my travelling pants (yes, I really do have travelling pants, just like that crazy book!), my travelling hat, my travelling t-shirt, and my travelling sunglasses.  I wore my OSU shirt because if anything will give me the power to complete an adventure it’s that.  I wore my fedora at a rakish angle, jauntily inviting conversations as the travelling diplomat.  I wore the pants which are lightweight and breathable and can zip into shorts if I so desire.  They’re also quick-dry just in case it rains or I feel like plunging into a river.
More...I started off about 9:30 and there was a nice breeze blowing along the river.  I was happy to see many people out already busily working or playing.  A man was busy trimming his hedge with huge clippers and some children with SWEET mullets rode by on their bicycles.  I passed the park with the strange deer statues (they look more like dinosaurs) and then watched as three men climbed around on a roof and threw old tiles down to the ground where they shattered.  I had originally planned to walk to Makino station by turning left once I reached the river.  However, an overwhelming urge persuaded me to go right instead and I hopped the chain barrier and headed the other direction down the path.  Many people on bicycles passed me and I was happy to see all sorts of sports equipment sticking out of their bags (tennis rackets, baseball bats, etc…).  A tiny delivery van raced by on the opposite side of the river.  I began to really wish I had my camera with me because there are some things in Japan that you just can’t believe if you haven’t seen them.  My senses were sharply attuned to the world around me.  Already it was beginning to become warm and an array of smells bombarded me as I walked along the river.  Someone was already frying up some tempura or croquettes.  The lush plants along the river were heating up and the smell of warm leaves doing their thing became very strong.  The river itself seemed to have an odor, the water plummeting from small dams that completely controlled the flow gurgled and spat.  Crickets chirped monotonously and small cars and motorcycles raced by on the opposite bank, their Japanese-size engines whining as they pushed the revolutions.  A van drove by with bullhorns on top, broadcasting some sort of political propaganda.  It was already hot and humid and sweat began to bead up on my forehead.  The river began to look inviting for a quick dip but there are warning sides along the river exclaiming “ABUNAI!” (It’s dangerous!) and showing a picture of a kappa (Japanese water demon) grabbing an unsuspecting reveler and dragging it into the water.  There are many small gardens placed haphazardly on the banks of the river and an old guy was down in the dirt tending his sunflowers.  Laundry fluttered on the balconies of all the apartments as dryers are still pretty uncommon in Japan.  A pink towel with a cartoon rabbit and the words “Miss Bunny” caught my attention on a nearby balcony.  Dragonflies hovered about everywhere like big fat VTOL aircraft.  In one direction, I could see the large buildings of the KGU campus as well as the public library and in the other direction I could see my favorite huge twin tower apartment building.  I passed by a neighborhood full of stark, gray apartment buildings that all looked the same.  Each building was labeled with a letter and number – B-5, B-19, B-10-2, etc…  Strangely enough, they’re not all in order.  B-6 isn’t necessarily between B-5 and B-7.  This is because the numbers represent when the building was constructed, not the order that they’re in.

About five minutes to 10:00, I left the river and struck up along the road heading towards Kuzuha.  I passed a tricked-out van with an airbrushed picture on the back of a face with long blonde hair and a deep tan.  Further on, I passed a delicious smelling bakery but since I’d just had breakfast I decided to press on without going in.  When you see the kanji for book it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s advertising a bookstore.  I passed a small building with the English words “book vendor” printed on the side but from the pictures on the windows and the vending machine outside it looked like it only sold adult magazines.  Rice paddies are randomly thrown in between buildings and the vibrant green of the rice seems almost fluorescent and unnatural.  Ribbons swirl around above the rice and mannequins are placed sporadically around the field to scare off birds.  They are pretty scary to me too!  I could see a thin filament similar to fishing line connecting them and it looked like a devious trap set up to catch ninjas entering the field.  I passed an Irish pub and a hardware store and admired some window box gardens in some neighboring apartments.  To my right, men in suits and ties ran around in a gas station helping customers and giant digital displays on the wall ticked off the amount of time the customers had been waiting.  Gas stations in Japan might more appropriately be called “service stations,” just like the old gas stations in the United States.  When you pull in to get gas, you get a full service – they clean your windows, bring you something to drink and a newspaper, check all the fluids and the pressure in your tires, etc…  It’s really fun to watch but most of the time they’re just standing around looking eager to help the next person who pulls in.  While waiting for the light to change to cross the road, I glanced down at some trash on the edge of a rice paddy.  It was wrapped haphazardly in black plastic.  I reached down to look inside and discovered it was a discarded adult magazine.  The light changed and I left it there for someone else to deal with since it is very difficult to find a trash can anywhere in Japan.  As I was passing a store labeled “KUMON” with a cute little happy face in the O I noticed a truck with a picture of a couple of mice dressed up in bowties.  There was an older, fatherly mouse placing a paw upon the head of the younger mouse.  As I was admiring this truck, I witnessed a near-accident!  Somebody had pulled out into the intersection when they weren’t supposed to and almost got hit.  This was the first time I’d ever heard a Japanese person curse.  “Kutabattei shimae!” (Go to hell!) yelled one angry driver and sped off.  This was pretty surprising because most of the time everyone is apologizing for everything even if it isn’t their fault.  I’ve witnessed many near-accidents here in Japan so far and I’m really glad I’m not driving.

I passed a place called Soushin which advertised that it was “excellent/modern” and a housing development that advertised an English Garden (though I couldn’t see it).  A truck with a picture of a kangaroo on it and the words “-ruganka” (Kangaroo backwards) sped by and I enjoyed this poem on the side of a restaurant named Gyu-kaku:

Oniku wo takusan tabete
Sake wo takusan nonde
Hanashi mo takusan suru
Shiawasena toki.  Gyu-kaku na toki!

(When we eat a lot, drink a lot, and talk a lot, it is a very pleasant time.  It is Gyu-kaku time!)

I passed a hospital where an ambulance had just pulled in and the little playground out front looked bare and desolate in the midday sun.  A snail, a horse, and a whale waited patiently for high-spirited youngsters to come out and ride them.  I should explain something about ambulances.  People in Japan are ambulance crazy and they call them all the time even when they don’t really need them.  Because ambulances are free, some people even call them to use them as taxis.  Anyway, this might explain why most people don’t really get out of the way of ambulances when they’re coming down the street.

Did you know stop signs in Japan are triangular?  Did you know crows say “Oi!” just like a cratchety old person?  They do.

I passed an incredibly gaudy pink van and a shop selling Hello Kitty bathmats and Mickey Mouse slippers.  An hour after I started my walk, I arrived at the Kuzuha mall (right next to the train station) and passed my super awesome huge Neo-Twin Tower apartment buildings!  I’d really like to live there someday.  With the train tracks in sight, I turned right and began walking parallel to them.  I passed a geodesic dome which was stuck smack-dab on top of another apartment complex.  It was a rather strange sight.  I was proud of myself when I read the kanji on the path and realized that pedestrians were supposed to take the right side of the path while bikes were given the left side.  I found a sign pointing to Yawatashi and turned away from the railroad tracks to begin ascending a long hill.  Partway up the hill I passed a school (or something) with a couple of ridiculous buses parked out front.  One was decorated with a Koala face on the front and the other was made up to look like a fox.  I kept crossing major intersections and all the road signs had been worn away so it was very difficult to tell if I was still on the right track to get to Yawatashi.  About 11:00 I stopped at 7-11 and grabbed a Calpis.  I crested the hill and began my descent into a huge valley full of rice paddies.  I crossed under a bridge with a banner proudly proclaiming “We Love Peace!”  A van labeled “BONGO!” zipped by and the cicadas in the thick bamboo forest nearby began to crank up the volume in the sweltering heat.  I passed a beautiful gate with ornate metal work which led into someone’s private garden in front of their house.  My feet began to hurt about 11:15 and I finally arrived in Yawatashi at 11:30.  Yawatashi is actually a really cool little town with an open marketplace right next to the train station and some paths running along the river.  This is the neighborhood where my students live and it was interesting to see what it looked like in the daytime.  I entered the Iwashimizu Hachimangu Shrine and found a steep stone stair path winding up the mountain through the forest.  As I entered the forest, the sounds of the city faded away and were replaced by an incessant and almost overpowering din of cicadas and crows.  Leaves wafted down from up above and as I climbed higher and higher the ruckus became almost unbearable.  I began gasping for breath, perhaps from the heat, perhaps from the steep and unending climb, or perhaps from the magical atmosphere.  I was really able to understand why Shinto would be so popular in Japan.  The moment you enter one of these forests it feels like you’re in a magical, spiritual place.  I half-expected to see a kitsune (fox spirit) jump out somewhere and tempt me to my doom.  I passed some workers who were taking a break during the heat of the midday and they wished me luck on my climb to the top telling me it was not too much further.  I reached the top and came out upon another shrine.  I purified myself at the water trough, taking an extra gulp of the pure fresh water and stopped to pray at two of the smaller shrines, clapping my hands together and fervently wishing to kamisama that I would be able to finish this epic adventure.  I threw a few yen into the money trough for good luck and the aluminum made a rather flat clunk as it rolled in.  I wandered over to where the cable car comes out (most people take that instead of hiking to the top) and watched the train emerge from a tunnel into the station.  The mountain is called Otokoyama which means Man-Mountain.  Someday I think I’d like to ride the cable car but I had made a promise to myself to not ride any transportation until I reached Kyoto.  I worked my way back down the mountain, stopping to try to decipher some informational panels advertising a kind of chickadee or nuthatch and talking about how this area was a protected wildlife area.  A huge lizard (maybe about 10 inches long) crossed my path and I began to pick up the sounds of the train station far below.  I felt like a yamabushi (a mountain warrior Buddhist monk) as I trekked through this magical realm.  I stopped to rest for about ten minutes on a bench and let myself become drawn into my surroundings.  When I opened my eyes, a large irridescent green spider was crawling up my leg.  Remembering that it is bad luck to kill a spider in Japan, especially after dark, I carefully brushed it off my leg.  It rolled up in a ball on the ground and was still.  I hope I didn’t hurt it!  I thought I barely touched it.  Mosquitos began landing on me (I was sitting next to a small cave full of stagnant water) and a guy with a yellow scarf tied around his head came by running full tilt, huffing and puffing.  “Ganbarre!” (Good luck!) I cried as he passed and he grunted something as he disappeared around the bend.

I returned to the bottom of the hill and stood on a bridge over the river watching hundreds of minnows swirling around in the shallows.  I continued on, passing over the Kizugawa and Yodogawa rivers.  The nearest route I could find for crossing the rivers was the expressway so there I was walking along next to the highway, way up high on a bridge, trying to keep the railroad bridges in sight.  The rivers were lovely and I wanted to go swimming in them but there was some suspicious foam swirling around in the Yodo river and I thought it best not to swim in what are undoubtedly highly-polluted rivers.  I thought whimsically about the “Beware of Kappa!” signs and wondered if the pollution wasn’t the main reason one should avoid the rivers.  A bike path ran up and down one bank of the Kizugawa but didn’t appear to be going where I wanted to go so I continued on the expressway.  I took the Yodo exit and walked through Yodo and then Otesuji.  They’re really not very exciting cities and I began to get hot and tired walking along and seeing the same convenience stores and hair salons that I saw a couple of kilometers earlier.  I lost track of the railroad tracks when I was diverted around the Kyoto Racecourse.  I passed a couple of love hotels (Hotel Please and Hotel Tiara) and noticed a tiny shrine nestled in a corner of a factory.  Speakers began blaring a tune like church bells and the workers knew it was time to change shifts or have lunch or something.  It’s interesting how we are trained to react to certain stimuli like sounds and lights.  I passed a bicycle graveyard with mounds of bicycles all over the place and Winnie the Pooh sitting comfortably in a rickshaw.  A truck with the name FOOTWORK roared past and I chuckled insanely to myself about my aching feet.

A note about policemen in Japan.  Everywhere you look, there’s a traffic cop.  His whole purpose is to stand on a corner and direct traffic in and out of a certain area all day long.  They wear really heavy uniforms usually in dark colors and I wonder how these guys stay alive standing out there in the hot sun all the time.  Anyway, a good majority of these cops have LIGHTSABERS!  They wave them around frantically directing traffic in and out of factories or around construction sites.

Anyway, there I was walking along in Yodo and contemplating various aspects of Japan.  A group of kids dressed in red rode by on bicycles and they all had baseball equipment swinging from their backs.  Baseball’s huge here in Japan.  If you’re not playing it you’re probably at least a fan.  I passed a yard with CDs hanging from strings from various parts of the yard and house.  What’s with that?  I see it everywhere around here.  Pretty funky decorations.  I passed a warehouse labeled “Romance” and wondered what they make there.  There are English words scattered all over Japan and most of the time they don’t make any sense.  It’s like they just fell from the sky when a space dictionary exploded and just stuck to various signs and parts of buildings.  I passed another factory with a big sign near the loading dock that said “O Donuts!”  I didn’t see or smell any donuts.  It was an auto parts factory from the looks of it.  Further on, I passed a line of decorated trucks.  Truck drivers in Japan have really cool trucks.  These trucks were all decked out with gaudy accessories such as fins and lights and signs and streamers and dolls and whatever else you could think of to throw on the front of your truck.  I think it would actually be kind of scary to see one of these trucks coming up in your rearview mirror!  I passed a golf store called Golf5 (as if they needed that number) and their slogan was “Nice Day.  Nice Shot.”  Just beyond that was one of the more bizzare finds of the day.  It was a restaurant that was covered with artificial rocks to look like you were entering a cave and there was a big sign over one boarded up hole that said, “America!”  The name of this restaurant?  Bikkuri Donkey (Surprise Donkey).  I almost went in to see if they served donkey because that certainly would have been a surprise!  Feeling a bit like Gulliver in a strange new land, I passed a store called, of all things, Gulliver.  And then I found Round 1!  I don’t know if I mentioned this earlier but the first day I checked my mailbox in the CIE I discovered a suspicious handwritten note with a card to Round 1 in it.  The outside of the note read: “For Quill” (ominous, eh?) and here is what it said on the inside:

Quillius よ!  Go to Round One.  We’re watching you.  I hear sniper is watching you too.  He is the unibomber.

So anyway, I found Round One!  Just beyond that was a Yakisoba restaurant that boldly proclaimed: “Please refresh yourselves.  That is the purpose of this place.”  Thinking that that was far too suspicious, I continued on even though I was starting to get hungry.  At about 2:20 I was hot, thirsty, sweaty, and my feet and head hurt.  I passed a hotel called Hotel BRIO and I expected it to be some sort of wooden structure with wooden trains running in and out of it on wooden tracks.  My face began twitching and I knew it was time to get something to drink.  I stopped at a convenience store and picked up a liter and a half of orange juice!  “Here, it’s 3000 yen,” I said stupidly as I put down only 1000 yen.  Ah well, I was tired.  I continued on feeling inferior and soon passed a temperature display.  35 degrees Celsius.  That’s about 95 Fahrenheit.  Ugh!  No wonder I was so hot.  I passed a factory called NEGROS and wondered what they produced there.  Finally, I arrived in Kyoto about 3:00.  As I was crossing underneath all the JR railway lines (there’s a bunch of them) one of my huge blisters finally popped.  It was a horribly warm and wet feeling in my shoe and I knew I needed to stop and rest for awhile because it began to hurt like blazes.  I emerged from the tunnel, the limping gaijin, and stumbled into a park.  Luckily, a local school was holding a concert there that evening!  I sat down next to some bushes, a fair distance away from everyone, and listened happily as some young children sang and played recorders.  After that, some high school or middle school kids began to set up for their band concert and I decided to stick around and listen to it too.  I lay in the grass with my hat over my face and listened to the children playing around me.  Some kids were playing catch with a baseball and a tennis racket (not sure how that works, really…) and the ball rolled over to me at one point.  “Sumimasen!” cried the boy.  I smiled back at him as I tossed the ball and said, “Mondai nai yo!  Daijoubu desu.” (No problem.  I’m fine.)  A boy showed up on a unicycle and rod up and down across the grass for awhile.  The concert got going about 15 minutes late and the teacher got up and said even though there was talk of rain it looked beautiful right now so they were going to press on with it.  I looked around and it seemed highly unlikely that it would rain.  I stayed for the whole concert and ended up sitting there over an hour.  It was really nice to just be in a park and experience life around me.  A couple of gaijin on bikes showed up near the end of the concert and sat down to listen also.  While I was sitting there, I had a good view of the railroad tracks nearby and I enjoyed watching the bullet trains glide in and out and the locals and freight trains chugging by.  Speaking of chugging, while they were setting up the concert I heard this crazy screaming noise and looked over towards the tracks to see a steam train going by!  It was a historical steam train that they’ve preserved and it was pulling a bunch of open-air passenger cars.  It looked pretty cool and I think I may go back and try to ride it someday.

After the final song, I got up and left, limping along and trying to ignore all the older people staring at me.  I passed a few huge shrines (they took up whole blocks) and then just as I reached the intersection of Karasumagojo it began dumping rain!  I raced across the street and ducked into Tsutaya (the video/game/CD rental outlet).  Not having an account, there wasn’t much I could do except just browse around and see what they had available.  I stayed about 10-15 minutes and then went outside and huddled with some other poor souls who were trapped in the entryway.  It just kept dumping.  One person showed up with umbrellas for some of their friends and they went out boldly and became immediately soaked despite the umbrellas.  Some people ran past with newspapers over their heads which did absolutely nothing to keep them dry.  One person hailed a taxi and by the time she got from the shelter to the taxi she was soaking wet.  Some people just walked or rode their bikes right on by and looked as if they hadn’t even noticed it was raining and they were getting soaked.  I crouched there awhile and then decided to put on my raincoat and head out because it didn’t look like it was going to stop anytime soon.  Everything stayed pretty dry in my backpack and my pants dried really quickly so I wasn’t dripping all over the place when I boarded the train back home.  I got off in Makino and limped along the river path back towards home.  I passed a bar called Bird and the guy inside looked really nice so I doubled back and went in and ordered a beer.  “What size?” he asked.  “Big.  Big.  Big,” I said, collapsing on the bar stool.  It was a really narrow and long restaurant with barely enough room to sit at the stools in front of the bar.  Pots of fat bubbled and sizzled and there was so much grease everywhere.  I was actually quite glad I wasn’t eating anything there because the smell of burning fat and grease was really unappetizing.  He came back with two beers in hand and asked if I wanted the 500yen one or the 700yen one.  “Better make it the 500yen one,” I said, gulping as I thought how little money I had left.  I had a great time talking with him a bit and he was really impressed when I told him I had walked to Kyoto that day.  A couple sitting next to me told me that they lived in Kyoto and had just taken the train out to Makino for the day.  It was just a regular Asahi beer (“the Budweiser of Japan”) but it tasted so good because I was so worn out.  I felt a bit like Alan Booth, the man who wrote a couple of great travelogues about walking around Japan and loved to drink beer at every town he visited.  It is probably because of him that I was so inspired to take this adventure.

I found Willy between the river and the Seminar Houses and we hung out for a bit while I told him of my adventures.  Feeling hungry since I had only had liquids since I began my journey that morning, we decided to head down to the KyuKyu (the 99-yen store) and pick up some food.  It was a long, painful walk there and back but I really appreciated having the rice balls.  Later, I took a shower and realized how sunburned my arms and face are.  The blisters on my feet are terrible and are really painful to walk on.  I think I’m just going to spend the day in my room and rest.  So, what did I learn from this trip?  The first part of the trip was terrific and Kyoto itself is beautiful too.  However, I think I’ll take the train next time.  It’s only 340 yen each way and I spent at least that much purchasing liquids to keep myself alive as I walked.  How far did I actually end up walking?  I think I walked about 35 kilometers which is a little over 20 miles.  It sure felt longer than that!

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