Kyoto, well and unwell

Poor Kyoto, it didn’t really stand a chance, did it? Not for those first 24 hours. Not when I couldn’t hold food down, my shins and thigh bones ached, and every joint hurt. Not when I could feel the cold down to the pit of my stomach, when one foot never stopped being numb, and when all I wanted to do was sleep. None of that was Kyoto’s fault. Tokyo did that. Tokyo screwed over Kyoto. It ate me up and spat me out, dazed and miserable, and let Kyoto see what on earth it could make of me.

Most cities would fail the test.

But Kyoto’s not most cities. 


Things I remember from my first twenty four hours in Kyoto include the fact that it is the coldest place ever invented, it’s busses take a really extraordinarily long time to get anywhere, when they do get there they are the coldest places on earth, and my friends are all, universally, and without exception, complete jerks.

That those impressions might have been shaped by the fact that I could barely keep rice down was not a thought I was willing to entertain at the time. In retrospect, looking at pictures, I think the Golden Pavilion was actually shockingly beautiful. And even as my bones ached and my tedious friends did tiresome awful things like “looking at maps” and “finding out where we’re going” and “asking kindly if I was okay” Gion was gorgeous. It’s the oldest surviving quarter of Kyoto – the city was once essentially run by rival Geisha houses, who would control and police the quarters around them. Gion was the most powerful, and so has stayed while others developed – old wooden houses, silent lanes, sliding doors and slatted windows looking in on gorgeous feasts served to wealthy diners sitting on tatami mats. None of these restaurants were for the likes of us. We spent and hour in hopes of spotting a geisha, failed, and then went and got udon from a bright, steamy diner where it cost us $2.50.

But the second night, when we returned to our machiya, a traditional Japanese town house with paper thin walls, and futons laid out on tatami matt floors, we found a miracle: it was warm. The total lack of insulation in machiyas is a mystery I’m yet to understand. It is very hot in the summer, my friend Marty, who lived in a machiya while teaching English in rural Japan explained to me, so this kind of light weight breezy construction makes sense. But, I insisted, isn’t it also very cold in the winter? Yes, Marty admitted, it really is very cold in the winter. So…. wouldn’t insulation make sense? Marty sighed heavily, “when I lived here,” he told me forlornly, “my cooking oil froze and all my honey crystalized.” He reflected on the insulation situation for a bit, and then explained that there’s a kind of table that used to be filled with hot coals but is now electric, that you can sit near, or put your legs under at night. We thought about this set up for a little. “It really is,” Marty concluded, “totally miserable.”

So we did what Western jerks everywhere do: we ignored local custom and cranked the heat. For the first night it made no difference. I slept under four comforters and stumbled down the icy stairs five times to be sick. But even without my post-Tokyo withdrawal symptoms, everyone else was miserable too. Handily, futons are also really uncomfortable. Marty told us that after two weeks of sleeping on one, both his hips were bruised. It is worth noting here that Marty was in the room when we booked a machiya with futons.



The second morning dawned cold and misty, but I had slept, our house was warm, and our fortunes were changed. I ate some rice. I didn’t throw it up. The day of miracles had begun.

I can’t write it all. I can’t begin to write it all. This is already long, and it’s mostly been whining. So I will give you this, instead, a few impressions of a city that, by the end of the day, had gone from The Worst Place Ever to Maybe Where I Need to Move.

Bright orange Torii gates marching up a mountain, one after another – they call them the thousand gates but there must be more. The forest around the gates is dark and misty, rain dripping through pine boughs and down to a mossy forest floor.  Against the dim woods, the gates look almost luminescent, winding into the wilderness. After the first kilometer or so the crowds thin out and Marty, Quynh and I are alone, in absolute silence. Every few hundred meters the gates break and there is a tumbling pile of shrines stretching up the mountain face, each mounded with tiny Torii gates covered in prayers. At the very top of the mountain a cat is standing on the shrine, drinking water from the offertory. As we climb back down a crumbling cement path, we see a cafe, with a single man inside. Outside, under a makeshift tent, a camp stove is boiling eggs. We duck in and sit on a low bench by a rotating portable heater. He brings the girls coffee from an espresso machine balanced on a folding table, and pours Marty green tea from a steaming pot balanced on a camp stove. We eat boiled eggs while the rain patters on the tin roof and streams down the windows. 

The part about the busses is true. They take forever. We give up on going to see an ancient zen rock garden of apparently outstanding beauty and unmatched historical and cultural importance and go to eat instead. This seems in line with my life priorities in general.

We walked through indoor malls of brightly lit shops selling animal onsies and bright paper stationary. We got lost, twice, and then found ourselves in the Nishiki Market, a long, covered street of stores – we bit into the heads of tiny octopuses, slick with teriyaki sauce and stuffed with hard boiled quails eggs, we touched spices to our tongues that lit our mouths on fire and ate balls of rice covered in minuscule dried fish. I went to get green tea icecream, then Marty did, then Quynh made us double back so she could, too. We had balls of steaming dough stuffed with fish, and dried black soybeans coated in candy. I drank a few cups of steaming green tea, feeling my hands thaw against the porcelain.

And then we dove back into side streets, dark alleys dotted with the picture windows of stores that arranged their wares just so – stark white interiors with architectural shards of fabric hanging from wires (I looked, I couldn’t even afford to look) used clothing stores up enticing stairways, porcelain stores and paper shops with hundreds of printed tapes and post cards. We went into a basement cafe full of french jazz and Japanese hipsters eating spaghetti and salads with chopsticks and drinking wine. We found a line of Japanese people, and hopped in. It turned out to be soba, served at a wooden bar by three chefs who worked in coordinated ballet to turn out huge steaming bowls of clear broth poured over a nest of noodles laced with strands of kelp, shreds of yuzu floating on the surface, and a half cooked egg whose dark orange yolk seeped into the soup.

We wandered the streets a bit more, past chic bars and dim restaurants, I made up a song called “everything is just amazing” and sang it, on a loop, for twenty minutes.  We finally caught a train back to our small machiya, crawled into our nests of comforters, and with full bellies, slept for our last night in Japan.

I left Tokyo exhausted, jittery, and sick. I had fallen head over heels and wasn’t particularly interested in finding a new love just yet. Not many places could bring me back – but I’ll say it again: Kyoto is not most places. 


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