Kyoto is a city trapped between two worlds. One part cultural Vatican, steeped in two-thousand years of deeply religious, often violent history. Another part thriving cosmopolitan hub, polka-dotted with tightly organized subways, shopping arcades and tired-eyed businessmen.
We arrived in Kyoto on a bright Sunday afternoon, half-cut from drinks on the train. With legs eager for stretching, I was more than ready to be unleashed into this, my first experience in a Japanese city. One short taxi ride later, and we were dropped off at our new home for the next four days: The Millennials Hostel.
The name can give you a relatively good indication about the overall vibe of this place. Young professionals in cotton scarves calmly clattered away on keyboards in the communal area. Wide-eyed bearded web designers roared in friendly debate over optimal Bitcoin investment strategies, as British indie rock gently blared over the loudspeakers.
Kia was rather unimpressed at the whole affair. I think he’d fallen in love with the rustic, drunken charms of our previous accommodation. All I needed to win me over was the clean, private rooms, the adjustable beds and the solid WiFi connection. That coupled with the unlimited free beer served every day between 5:30pm and 6:30pm – I was more than sold.
Suffice to say, the free beer hour is where we made the majority of our new friends. One of the most notable segments in that crowd were taking part in a program called Remote Year. Essentially, this is an organization which takes groups of people, all with the skills and opportunity to work remotely, and organizes a 12 month, 12 country tour for them to take.
To clarify, the program itself does not train people to work remotely, nor does it help them find work directly. The program simply arranges the flights, accommodations and finds spaces where they can work. Essentially, Remote Year handles the logistics, and leaves the members to do as they please. The Millennials hostel was another one of these work spaces, and they weren’t actually staying there. As far as I could tell, they came to work on the comfortable couches, meet other travelers, and partake in the free beer hour (can’t fault them for that)
Naturally, I was curious about this program. Near the end of my visit to Kyoto, I asked a small sample of them for an interview.
On our first night we had showed up pretty late, so after drinking as much free beer as we could, we decided to lace up and explore the area around our hostel. Located right next to the Kamo river, we were essentially in the Western/Central area of the downtown core, an area zigzagged with shopping arcades and restaurants. With most of the proper tourist sites being closed for the day, we decided to hit the streets and see what the people of Kyoto do after dark.
After exploring the shopping areas, we decided to check out the streets closer to the river. There we encountered a tight maze of alleys and wooden tiled roofs. The compressed mishmash of merchants and izakayas (Japanese Pubs), was so densely packed it reminded me of some sort of Oriental Amsterdam
For more than one reason.
Bright pink signs of neon soon appeared out of the darkened woodwork, promising in broken English some of the most provocatively worded phrases to ever be hastily run through Google Translate (and clearly not double-checked, I might add). What we had stumbled upon was Kyoto’s discretely famous Red Light district, in all of its pink pastel glory.
A few blocks later still, and were passed through one of Kyoto’s 1600 Shinto/Buddhist temples. Young children smudged themselves with heavy incense while the elderly tossed coins into a wooden receptacle at the base of the shrine. They would then ring a bell and clap twice, muttering a brief prayer before shuffling off for the next worshiper to take their place.
The contrast was jarring, but such is the reality of Kyoto. An ancient religious capital, fraught with modern vices.
Gambling is technically illegal in Japan. You cannot bet on sporting events, nor play blackjack, poker, or roulette (although there are speculations that this will change for the 2020 Olympic Games). What they do have is Pachinko.
How does it work? No one knows!
Basically, you pour in your hard-earned yen coins, pull a lever, and then frantically hit buttons for the chance to win steel ball bearings. After collecting your fill, you then take your beloved bearings across the hall to a totally separate business which just happens to LOVE ball bearings. They’ll then pay you in cash for them. Nothing like gambling whatsoever.
The next day, we awoke to a winter storm. Due to this, we didn’t get much accomplished, aside from some much needed laundry and a brief visit to Nijō Castle. Due to the aquatic weather conditions, I found myself greatly preferring the indoor segments (unfortunately there were no photographs allowed). However, when we did have to go outside, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the beautiful gardens surrounding the Edo era fortress.
After the castle, we went back to the hostel to change our socks. After briefly consulting the Lonely Planet guidebook, we decided to check out the closest (and thankfully driest) attraction in Kyoto: The legendary Nishiki Market. Packed with tourists and steaming food stands, I’m glad I brought my appetite. As we discovered, this is a great place to enjoy Japanese street food ranging from pedestrian to exotic. At one point I ate a full (albeit tiny) octopus on a stick. It a had a quail egg inside it’s head instead of a brain! Neat!
Later that night, perhaps to make up for being rained in, or perhaps to relive the Viking-like levels of alcohol fueled savagery we’d held in Hakuba, we decided to get drunk. Polishing off a premium bottle of Sake we’d bought in Nishiki Market in 20 minutes, we spilled out into the street, new friends in tow. Our destination: Gion, the traditional district known to be the favorite haunt of legendary icons in Japan: The Geisha.
Of course, it being 11:30pm, there were (in hindsight pretty obviously) none still hanging around, and while I hate to be anticlimactic, that’s sometimes the way travelling goes. Regardless, we rolled with the punches, paraded through few izakaya’s, and finished off the evening in one of Japan’s delightful photo booths.
After saying goodnight, for better or for worse, me and Kia decided to keep the party going. Memory at this point becomes hazy, but I do have a few photos to remind me of the general ebb and flow from that point on. The first and final stop for our private after party: tiny karaoke bar.
There is an extremely embarrassing video from that night of me and Kia totally butchering Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. It is so cringy that I will not be posting it on the blog at this time. We were so tone deaf that afterward our performance, the bar staff reached over and took the karaoke computer away, stashing it safely behind the bar.
The time for singing had passed, but luckily, nothing really mattered … To meeee.
Much to the relief of the bar staff, we managed to stumble home at around 5am. This was probably the drunkest I’d been on the whole trip. The type of drunk where the world shook violently beneath out feet, and the only choice was to carry, (and to be carried) by the friend standing next to you, all the while singing Irish sea shanties.
What shall we do with the drunken sailor
What shall we do with the drunken sailor
Early in the morning
And indeed it was, early in the morning.
We were pretty rough the next day. Arising sometime around noon, we were still drunk from the night before, a condition we remedied by eating scrambled eggs with fried Kobe beef. Shortly after consulting the hallowed Lonely Planet guidebook, we decided the best use of our late start would be the Southern Higashiyama walking tour, which covers many of Kyoto’s top landmarks in one convenient path, with the starting point somewhat nearby to our hostel.
From that point on. we commuted most places via bicycle. Taking the subway only allows you two fixed points of experience: where you enter the train and where you get out. You inevitably lose half the enjoyment of traversing the city to the identical underground halls of train stations. Believe me, the language over the loudspeaker may differ, but if you’ve seen one underground train system, you’ve seen them all. If weather permits, Kyoto is definitely a city to be experienced by bicycle. We managed it in the dead of winter so, your excuses are limited.
The first stretch of the walk was made up by a massive cemetery. Thousands of stone obelisks stood stark against the grey sky like some sort of miniature city for the deceased. As we left, I turned around and saw a lone Japanese man trudging up the hill. He must have been in his late 70’s, and was carrying flowers. Later in the walk, Kia confided in me that he had lit a prayer candle back at the cemetery temple. The wind had immediately kicked up and blew it out, as if to say, like a blunt Tokyo bouncer “No. This is for Japanese only.”
I’ve checked in with several Japanese sources, and I can confirm that we were okay to take photographs, so long as they were respectful in nature. Not being entirely clear on what that meant, we took as few as possible, and kept our faces stony and serious in all of them. However, that doesn’t mean that people walking through the park previously had the same idea…
A short walk later, and we had made it to the first massive temple along our walking route: Kiyomizu-dera. A colourful mix of tourists and worshipers made their way up the worn stone steps, while young girls in bright Yukutas (see below) crowded around selfie sticks. Video-bloggers with excessive, shoulder mounted Go-Pro’s pushed their way through the crowds, and children begged their parents to stop for matcha ice cream.
Little did I know, the temple we were about to enter held beneath its floors a pitch-black tunnel. This is the place which would play host to my first (and utterly unexpected) religious experience in Japan.
More on that next week.
Thanks for reading.