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Wednesday, April 12

What is Kyoto?
Click 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 in Ayabe.

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 effect.

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 or Vermont.

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 I saw.

Next: Day 6 - back to the old neighborhood

 
 

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