Wednesday, April 12
here for an instant geography lesson
As I discovered on Monday, Kyoto prefecture is an amazingly diverse
region. This day was to take us far to the north, to a rustic and
rural region within sight of the Sea of Japan.
The morning rush hour hadn't quite wrapped-up as we boarded the
subway for Kyoto Station. Visiting Japan, it is easy to get the
impression that, in general, the Japanese are polite, considerate
and well-mannered. However, when you enter a railway station, the
rules suddenly change. Running for trains becomes the national pastime
and woe be to the poor tourist whose attention momentarily lags
or you fail keep moving with the breakneck pace of the traffic.
Japanese commuters seem to have a sixth-sense when it comes to railway
timetables. It is not uncommon to see someone break into a full
run when they step off one train, continue at full speed to a distant
part of the station to arrive just in time to queue up for their
connection on another line. This isn't limited to the dark-suited
salarymen. It's the case with school children, shoppers and knowledgeable
tourists with a strong sense of self-preservation.
|An commuter train approaches the station platform
We transferred to an older train that would take us far out of
town to the city of Ayabe, far to the north where Kyoto prefecture
meets the Sea of Japan. It is a long ride, nearly two hours, but
the dynamic beauty of the scenery makes the time pass quickly. The
older electric cars may lack the speed and luxury of the more modern
lines. But, they make up for it with their own kind of comfort:
their slower intimacy with the countryside and a constantly changing
gallery of passengers. In spite of its obvious age, the train was
in near perfect condition. The green, velveteen seat covers were
barely worn and the interior of the car was immaculate.
It only took about fifteen minutes to get to the outskirts of Kyoto
city. The density of the buildings remained nearly the same, but
they became progressively lower and older. More of the back yards
contained small gardens and the water drainage channels got wider.
Then the gardens began to expand into small farm plots connected
by narrow country roads. The train is going slow enough to ear the
dissonant, ringing chord of the crossing gates. It has always sounded
to me like a touchingly melancholy, almost mournful song.
For the next quarter-hour, the hills rise abruptly from the plain
and the train is swallowed by tunnel after tunnel. I realize that
we have passed over the Hozukawa River and are traveling through
the same region we were in on Monday. In fact, by the time we reached
Arshiama, we were riding along the same rail line.
As we continued north, I found myself entranced and enchanted by
the scenery passing outside my window. This was some of the most
beautiful countryside I've ever seen in my life--hills, cozy green
valleys, intimate villages. and small family farms. I saw very little
farm equipment and would only notice, at the most, a few people
tending a field by hand. It was a refreshing change from the huge,
conglomerate agribusiness-dominated farming of this country. The
difference, of course, was reflected in the prices in markets and
restaurants, which were a good 30% higher than I was used to in
California. But, the quality of the fruit, vegetables and other
produce was extraordinary. Virtually every item in a shopkeeper's
stall looked to be a perfect specimen of its variety, carefully
tended if not cherished from the time it was a seedling to the moment
it was picked.
Through the last few stops before our destination, the train was
nearly empty--only housewives, retired folk and a smattering of
high school students. For many, it seems, the train is a place to
sleep. It serves as a brief respite from the headlong rush that
represents the bulk of each day. The gentle movement of the car
and the rhythmic rumble of the rails has a soothing and calming
We reached Ayabe a little after noon and were picked up by Kimea
driving her husband's old, black Toyota which obviously was not
subjected to the weekly washings of a "city car." Even
before we arrived at the station, I could see that Ayabe was a quiet
town where land and space was abundant. The streets and roads were
wide and many of the houses had large yards. It was a place were
people drove, rather than walked. The stores were often large and
had generous parking lots. If it wasn't for Japan's distinctive
style of architecture, this could have been a town in New Hampshire
Traffic was very light as we drove out of town. The number of buildings
dwindled and we were heading through a region of alternating farms
and forests not unlike western Oregon. After a while we were headed
up a twisting, but well-maintained mountain road. Concave mirrors
at the apex of the sharper turns offered a preview of oncoming traffic.
There were very few guardrails to restrain a driver whose attention
may stray. After watching traffic in both pedestrian and bicycle-jammed,
wafer-thin city-streets and winding, precipitous mountain rounds,
I am convinced that this nation must have some of the best drivers
in the world.
The Goro Sky Tower
The road ended at the mountain's summit, which overlooked the surrounding
countryside. At its very peak was the three-hundred foot Goro Sky
Tower, lofting visitors to an even more commanding view of the beautiful
and expansive harbor that leads to the Sea of Japan several miles
to the north. In spite of its considerable size, this was a quiet
harbor with very little development along its meandering coastline.
I saw one cargo ship at anchor, another was docked and a smaller
vessel at anchor a hundred yards or so off the one harbor village.
As was the case with most of the locations in Japan we visited,
the sky was empty except for two hawks flying a patrol over the
hiking paths in search of their noon meal.
|My wife, Kazz, and her friends cross a quiet
stream in an Ayable park.
Kimea's husband met us at the restaurant at the base of the tower
and we followed him back to their neat, modern apartment near the
center of town. As they chatted with my wife, we could hear their
neighbor's belligerent rooster harassing his harem of hens. Before
it was time to catch our train home, we drove to a huge park and
nature center at the edge of town and took a walk around the edge
of a small pond at its center. As we were driving back to station,
I found myself wishing we could stay a little longer. This journey
provided a most unexpected bit of paradise. I have visited very
few other regions with such an enviable quality of life.
Even though we were on a local and it was heading into the commute
hours, our train ride home was quite peaceful. We were travelling
from the countryside back to the city, so most of the passengers
heading in our direction were local commuters, on the train for
only a few stops.
It was growing dark as we drew near to Kyoto city and I began to
notice something else about driving in Japan. I discovered that
people did not use their headlights until it was absolutely necessary
to see the road ahead. According to my wife, they are considered
unnecessary and their bright glare an imposition under any other
conditions than the dead of night.
The rush hour crowds were thinning out by the time we transferred
trains in Kyoto Station. I was still so immersed in the serenity
of Ayabe, I barely noticed the dark-suited salarymen hurtling past
us, through the station, up and down stairways, in and out of trains.
This would be our last night in Kyoto. We spent some time that
night rearranging our belongings so my wife could ship her suitcase
to her parents' house. I went to bed that night with mixed emotions.
The first part of our trip was coming to an end and I felt that
there was still so much in Kyoto that I wanted to see and do. I
am far from being a "city person," but there is something
magically attractive about Kyoto in spite of the crowds of people
and the densely packed neighborhoods of its broad valley. Even growing
up in the Boston area, I was never overcome with such an incredible
sense of history as I experienced while walking through the shrines
and temples and within the protected confines of impenetrable castle
walls. A sense of reverence for history and tradition were virtually
everywhere, from small, neighborhood shrines to miniscule, yet perfect
gardens tucked neatly next to the entrance of a house.
I also knew that what could be the most exciting part of the trip
still lay ahead. During my previous trip to Japan, I was also in
Kyoto and had spent two days at a mountain resort in Hakone. But,
our stay was only just a week and filled with other distractions
(like wedding preparations, the wedding itself and my wife packing
up and moving out of her apartment). In the preceding four days,
I had the opportunity to get a much bigger picture of Japan and
was in a much better state of mind to appreciate and ponder what
Next: Day 6 - back to the