I stayed one more day in Tokyo and then took the shinkansen out towards Kyoto. That was when my trip truly began. I had been so wholly occupied with the people I was associating with in Tokyo that I had little chance to pay attention to my surroundings. Now that I was on my own, I could view the country unimpeded. If I went back again, I think I would take the cheap overnight train or bus, but people said that the Japanese bullet train was a not to be missed experience. It was very fast, like they said, and the view of Mount Fuji was impressive, like they said, but mostly it was a train ride in a fancy cabin where everyone smoked enough to turn us all into human jerky.
My original plan was to spend a few days in Kyoto, but the Matsushitas concurred with my college buddy Sayaka, Nara was much better. How could I spend time in Kyoto when everyone got dreamy just at the mention of Nara? My compromise was to spend the day in Kyoto and catch an evening train on to Nara. It was raining that day, which added a picturesque veil of mist around the historic sights. I avoided the modern part of the city, choosing to explore the old temple and palace district. Whenever I started to feel chilled I would stop in at a little tea shop for a snack. I was on a tight budget and never bought more than 100 yen’s worth of sustenance.
Evening came in due course, I boarded my train and then disembarked when we arrived in Nara. I took an overpriced taxi to the youth hostel I was staying at. I only paid the 25 dollars for the night, because I hoped to switch to another hostel the next day, one that was in a Shinto temple. Though in the end, I ended up staying all three nights at the generic hostel, because the temple staff spoke no English and couldn’t tell me if they had vacancies.
The youth hostel was a cozy place. Rooms were split by gender and lined by bunk beds. When I came, I had the place all to myself. There was a communal bath downstairs and some coin operated internet terminals. The best part was that I could rent a bike for 500 yen a day. I knew a deal when I saw one and borrowed a bike as soon as the front desk opened.
Nara was a small sleepy town. It was the capital before Kyoto, so it was rich in history, but never expanded into a modern monster city the way the later capitals did. I toured the whole place with my tourist map and handy bicycle. There were many temples, one which housed some truly memorable wooden sculpture. I have heard it said that the Renaissance masters could make it look as if the blood flowed in the veins of their creations, but these Japanese gods pulsed with life that went beyond simple circulation.
More fascinating than the buildings were the people. I one day started out too early and got caught in the rain before anything was open. I hid on the porch of a small Buddhist temple. The young attendant noticed me sitting there watching the glittering drops of moisture roll off the statuary and invited me inside. The temple was something out of a book with its wide tatami floors, raised alter and prayer cushions. The lady brought out tea and small mochi cakes for us to eat. I sat there for about half an hour conversing in broken Japanese, making great use of kanji scratched out on some scrap paper. Every few minutes she brought out more food. The rain had stopped soon after I entered the place of worship and I decided I better leave lest she feel obligated to feed me as long as I was under her roof!
The second night I was there, another woman came to stay. I was already in bed and raised my head blearily to acknowledge her arrival. Curiosity satisfied I flopped back and went back to sleep. The next morning we arose around the same time. I heard her fussing inside her curtained bed.
“Ohayo~” I greeted her.
“Gozaimasu.” She said finishing my ‘good morning’ with the formal ending.
She pulled her curtain aside. I was brushing my forever messy black hair. I turned around and smiled. She did a double take. This was the first time she had seen me face on. At a quick glance my features could pass for Japanese, but really look at me in good morning light there was no mistaking me for anything but a gaijin. She spoke English and we talked long enough for her to tell me there would be a free kimono dressing event down town tomorrow, which I was welcome to attend. I did too. I enjoyed the complicated process of donning Japanese formal dress, but sadly the demo tea ceremony afterwards was boring.
I delighted in the communal baths. The hot water felt quite luxurious. I hadn’t soaked in water since I left the U.S. and since winter had set in, showers in Shanghai had consisted of spending a scant few minutes under the hot water and then quickly dressing in the unheated bathroom. I took baths at every opportunity I could get. The first day of the trip back in Tokyo I had the huge tub all to myself. It felt lonely. There was this big communal soaking pool and all these soaping stations, yet no people there except for me. This trend kept up for a while, but then one day in Nara it was different. The window to my room overlooked the bathroom and I could see the shape of many females changing for a bath. I immediately decided that it was time I get cleaned up as well.
I shuffled down to the changing room and removed all my clothes. Then I entered the steam filled room. Two of the girls were already in the tub, one of them was still sitting on a small upturned bucket soaping herself. I took an empty station and started doing the same. I followed what I believed was the proper etiquette, washing limbs before trunk and when I felt I was sufficiently clean I went to get in the tub. The floor was awash in hot water, as each person entering the tub made the sides spill over. I suddenly felt a bit awkward as I splashed into the tub beside them, but they were all very friendly.
They spoke no English, so I used my caveman’s Japanese. “Me, America. You, where?”
It’s amazing how far you can get with that. We established that I was from the frozen north of the U.S. where it snowed a lot, but currently teaching English in Shanghai. They were high schoolers from Kyoto on a class trip of sorts. We talked about manga. They weren’t interested in any of the shonen, but turned out to be big Peach Girl fans. I gave my opinions on it and somewhere in the middle of this realized how amazing it was that I was conversing in Japanese! I had been debating where to move after China, favoring Vietnam, but it seemed like such a waste not to go to Japan. If I spent a few months here I could quickly become fluent, all I needed was a summer crash course and a lot of practice. All sufficiently soaked, we got out and went our separate ways.
Not everyone loved the communal bathing the way I did. At dinner one night I met a couple of men from U.S. They were complaining about the bathing situation. They thought it was just scandalous the way it was done in Japan. They even refused to strip entirely.
I laughed. “But why? What are you afraid of?”
“Our friends would never let us live it down!” One of them said. “They’d all think we were gay. Maybe Asian guys can get away with this stuff, but we can’t.”
I shrugged and went back to eating my onigiri. It seemed terribly silly to me.
After three days in Nara I had seen just about everything, so I decided to go to Asuka, the first capital of Japan. There was a youth hostel there and it was a quick train ride from my current location. Asuka was a small town. I spent most of my time biking through farmland, though I did get to see an area that was a restored Edo period town. It was just like walking through a samurai comic.
People kept talking to me in Japanese and I wearied of trying to answer, but the one thing I didn’t know how to say was “I don’t speak Japanese.” So I was forced to make talk about the current president, my home town, my job, China and other such inconsequential things all in broken Japanese. When it was time for me to fly back to China, I was ready.