Long time, no see
This year, I planned my Golden Week out in advance for 2 reasons: 1. I actually had days off to plan for (thank you Smith’s School of English!), and 2. I hadn’t been out in quite some time. So feeling slightly like a dusty, abandoned book in a long forgotten library, I brushed myself off and adjusted my eyes to the sun’s brightness.
Seriously speaking, working at night seems to have altered my internal circadian rhythm. Instead of starting my daily functions at sunrise, I now prefer to join the nocturnal owls in their activities after dusk. Most of my days begin in the afternoon and end around 4am the next morning. So, I don’t necessarily require the aid of the sun to enhance my productiveness. However, it was a nice change to realign my schedule to that of my fellow humans for two weeks, as well as re-familiarize myself with the friendly sun.
I’d been looking forward to going to Kyoto with a friend and her family for the past few weeks, fretting over whether or not it would rain that day. The last time we had been fortunate enough to work out a day together was back in January. Quite a while ago. So we were anxiously waiting for our planned trip, hoping nothing would go wrong. And… at last, Thursday arrived.
We meet along the Kyoto line and head off to Kawaramachi together. My friend had apologized in advance, reminding me that neither her mother nor son spoke any English so we would be communicating in Japanese for the day. I didn’t mind in the least, I just warned them in advance that I don’t speak Japanese very often so my version of conversation is trapped in ‘Tei Nei Kei’ (the polite form of Japanese filled with desu and masu). Sometimes, it’s better to be cautious than risk saying something offensive. After all, my casual Japanese consists of phrases that I’ve memorized from popular anime shows.
My friend laughs at this and reassures me that it doesn’t matter because she can understand. Her mother is thrilled to chat with me because I’m apparently the only foreigner she knows. She’s a wonderfully kind woman and treats me as if I were her second daughter. My friend’s son tends to ramble off excitedly in a dialect that perhaps only his mother and other children can understand. I am forced to nod and smile in response to most of his babbling. At one point, I apologize to my friend and admit that I can only understand about 20% of what he’s so riled up about. She smiles knowingly and confesses that even she finds his stories to be difficult to follow.
Our train ride is not very eventful. We were given no choice but to stay on the regular train straight to Kyoto since the express had been overcrowded with passengers leaning against the doors. So, it was an extremely long and sore hour and a half to Kyoto.
Welcome to Kawaramachi!
Upon arrival, I jump to my feet, desperate to get the circulation going again. My friend’s son makes a wild dash out the train doors as they open at Kawaramachi station, and his mother chases after him shouting. I exit at my own pace, being mindful of the swarms of feet both in front and behind me. The train rocks back and forth as all of its riders climb out and head for the escalators. I think that everybody might have followed us to Kyoto and copied our plans. The crowds were amazing to watch. They all headed in one direction, not that there was anywhere else to go.
We quickly gather at an exit after getting past the ticket gates, shrinking back from the people desperate to get above. My friend’s mother shows me a magazine, flipping to a page that displays a temple, a long article, and a small picture of something called ‘aburimochi’. I’ve eaten mochi before but this one looks different. Many small mochi in a collection of sticks on a plate, covered with some sort of brown sugar-like substance. Looks delicious! She advises that it’s best if we do our sightseeing far from the center of the city because everyone will stay packed here due to the location and convenience. I agree and she goes on to tell me that she’s been reading about this temple that is approximately thirty to forty minutes away by bus. The mochi is famous and we have just GOT to try it. She’s not going to get any argument from me there.
As the station empties out and awaits the next incoming train and its passengers, we hurry above ground and search for the nearest bus stop. We find it… and the thirty people lined up in front of it. Everyone else seems to have the same idea today.
We wait for a few minutes, with my friend’s son racing circles around us asking “Mommy, where are we going? Where are we going? Can we eat now?”
“Settle down,” she says calmly to him. Then she asks me, “are you hungry?”
No sense in denying it. “Starving!”
She turns to her mother. “How about you, Mom? Maybe we should eat before we get on the bus.” With this large number of people, the bus will probably be overcrowded anyway.
Where’s the crab?
So we re-enter the department store and head up to the restaurant floor, choosing a sushi restaurant to feast in. As the waitress takes our order, the little energizer bunny (my friend’s son) badgers her with his own requests. “Ne, I want crab! Do you have crab? Crab please!”
My friend rolls her eyes, tells the waitress to ignore her son and goes on to order from the menu. When the food is laid out before us, we enjoy the freshness of the fish and tempura (deep fried food in batter). The sushi here is really great quality and everyone is really generous by trading the salmon off of their plates for the odds and ends on mine. I love salmon and readily agree to trade for anything to fill my own plate with nothing but the dark pink fish and what remains of the tempura.
Throughout the meal, we hear the occasional, “where’s the crab?” but pay no attention.
We eat efficiently, wasting no time in getting in and out of there. Then we’re off for the bus stop again. The number of people has not changed at all. So when the bus does turn into the waiting area, we enter through the rear doors and cram into a corner. The bus ride is a little over forty minutes but by the time we reach our destination, the bus itself is practically empty. So is the area that we enter.
Rain, rain go away, come back on another day…
The sky has darkened in the amount of time that it takes us to get to this smaller, quiet area. It begins to rain as we walk down the street and most of the shops along the way are closed due to Golden Week. My friend’s mother pulls out her parasol and opens it up, continuing on as my friend and I, and her son, rush from one store canopy to the next for shelter. Luckily the rain stops before we run out of shops. We turn onto a bigger street without sidewalks and spot the temple far ahead. Only a handful of people are wandering around inside so we have no problem picking a few spots to take pictures amongst the expertly trimmed trees and flowers.
I ask my friend’s mother about the types of flowers – her specialty – while my friend takes some pictures and her son begins to collect fallen pinecones. As we converse, it starts to rain again and we duck under the archway of a large door for a moment’s reprieve.
“That’s funny. The weather forecast said that today would be clear and warm,” my friend dully notes.
“I checked on the internet and it said the same,” I agree with her. Weather is a strange, unpredictable thing, always changing.
During a lull in the rain, we venture through a path separated by very large bamboo trees. They’re quite magnificent to behold, towering over our heads, and blocking out both the sunlight and the rain. We stop a young woman that is on a walk with her parents, asking her to take a picture of the four of us together. She takes first my friend’s camera and snaps a shot, then mutters something about the camera setting being inappropriate for the lighting and subject matter. She waves us back into formation and after adjusting some of the settings on the camera, she takes another picture. With a smile, she hands back my friend’s camera and takes mine for another shot. The woman’s parents are smiling off in the background, patiently waiting for their daughter.
When we review the pictures, my friend comments on how great they are. The older couple grin proudly and mention that their daughter is a professional photographer. Imagine our luck! We thank them for their time and for the beautiful photography and continue through the path.
We reach the main temple just as a bolt of lightning tears across the sky, followed by a crash of thunder. Then the cumulonimbus clouds above our heads unleash a sudden, heavy rain shower. This traps us at the temple for an extra twenty minutes, giving my friend and her mother time to read the fortunes that they’ve received. My friend’s son glances at his own fortune before passing it to his mother, being unable to read it, and runs over to a table containing some paper, various stamps, and a large red stamp pad. He makes short work of the paper with the stamps as the rain and clouds fade out once more.
Mochi for four!
All this rain has worked up our appetites again, so we search around until we find the two restaurants selling mochi. The queue is incredible! Even with two restaurants on opposite sides of the road, they are both packed with people and the lines keep growing. We’ve come all this way so we line up, fidgeting as the wait extends to over an hour. This mochi is so popular that even after we are seated, the wait continues for another forty minutes. I hear my friend’s son call my name and then he conspiratorially whispers, “this service is so slow. What do you think? It’s slow, right?” I laugh and tell him that he isn’t the only one who wants to eat mochi. When the waitress approaches our table with a tray filled with mochi, he quickly tells her, “mochi for four people! Four plates please!” She shows him that she does indeed have four plates and sets them down on the table.
We dig into the mochi, discovering that we each have fifteen bamboo sticks with a sticky, sweet mochi speared on the end. They are quite delicious and definitely worth the wait. But they disappear too quickly and the exclaimed, “I’m still hungry” comes from me and not my friend’s son. All the walking has taken its toll on my stomach.
“I know this great soba restaurant,” my friend’s mother announces. So after my friend’s son finishes licking his plate, we take a taxi back into the center of the city to eat some more. It’s funny actually, how every time I hang out with my friends we always seem to end up in at least two restaurants before the end of the day. The soba restaurant is very relaxing and this is where we plan the final event of the day – shopping for souvenirs. My friend really wants to buy some new decorations for her apartment, her son wants sweets, I want sweets, her mother finds enough amusement in watching us behave like a bunch of kids.
After the soba and green tea are exhausted, we head out into the main street to find something to buy along the way back to the train station. My friend’s son and I are easily pleased when we encounter a dango (sweet rice ball) stand and get a handful to go. My friend stops inside a crafts store to pick up a few handmade frogs and water lilies. She pauses outside a store selling pretty paper fans, explaining that her son made short work of her last one. But when she sees her son reach for one, she pulls him back and reconsiders replacing the last one.
Unfortunately, the sun has begun to recede and our day is at a close. We’ve had a great time and make plans for our next outing sometime in August. The train ride home is very quiet and my friend and I stand the entire way for lack of seats. My friend’s mother and son sleep on their lucky seat, along with the rest of the passengers. At the station where we transfer, we say goodnight, and head home to enjoy our pictures and souvenirs.
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