Japan current location11:02 PM, Ryokan Seiki, Kyoto.

As I couldn’t sleep, I didn’t have any problem waking up this morning. In fact, ever have that problem where you instinctually wake up before your alarm? That was me, ten minutes before. I forced myself to stay under the covers, sneaking a peek at my watch now and then at the time. Finally, at 6AM, the alarm on my watch went off, and I hopped out of bed, immediately. Since I’d done all my packing the night before, it was pretty simple really; I showered, dressed in the clothes I’d set out, then gathered the stuff from the bathroom and carried it downstairs. I realized at that point, short of a last final check, there really wasn’t anything else to do. I started to make my last latte with the nice espresso machine. Gene appeared dressed in his flight suit and sat down for breakfast. When I’d cleaned up the machine, I joined him at the table. “For the first time in the history of making trips, I’m actually done before I needed to be. That’s really never happened before,” I told him. “Usually I’m rushing around.” Of course, that was partly because I was half-packed to begin with.

I was hoping to hear back from Ryokan Seiki, at which I’d made an email reservation at the night before. They’re supposed to email you back and let you know whether or not the reservation was set. However, I’d made it so late, and it was so early, that I wasn’t confident I’d get a response. Time ticked away, and finally at 7:02am, I gave up. I hibernated my laptop and put it away. I ran upstairs, said goodbye to Lou, then Gene and I got in the car. As we drove to the station, I handed Gene my base pass. I told him to hang on to it, just in case something happened and I needed to come back. Wasn’t likely, but you never know. Gene parked at the station, he thanked me for coming, and I gave him a big hug. I told him good luck with the kid and all, and he said to come back soon. I turned, and walked into the station.

I got the ticket to on a 7:30 train Tokyo without incident. I had assumed I’d be going to Ueno, and then have to transfer to Tokyo Station to catch the train to Kyoto. This is what I remembered. The train ride to Hachinohe was very brief, only about fifteen minutes. Lots of people were on the train that were obviously on their way to work, as they were wearing suits and carrying briefcases. Many were sleeping as well, trying to get in a few more minutes before they were at work. I transferred trains in Hachinohe station, and found my car with plenty of time; I had about 12 minutes to change trains. The two unfortunate things I discovered were that I wasn’t in a window seat, and that the seats were incredibly narrow! I could fit in the seat okay, but it was definitely very very tight. An older woman excused herself and took the seat by the window. I briefly considered asking her if I could put my GPS on the window, but decided it wasn’t really necessary. I turned on my laptop and worked on the log from the day before. A stop or two later, I got a little worried that I’d get another rowmate, as huge lines of people were waiting to get on the train. I made sure the seat was empty next to me, but as it turned out I didn’t need to. Although the seats around us seemed to dwindle, nobody took the middle seat. The woman got off at Nagoya, and she was replaced my a middle-aged man. This guy was my row mate all the way to Tokyo. I realized when we were almost there that the ticket really did go through to Tokyo Station, and didn’t end at Ueno like I’d thought.

The train terminated in Tokyo, and everyone got up to get off. There are lots of escalators in Tokyo, so I didn’t have any problem getting my bag off the platform. As I walked down the platform, there was a transfer exit for the Tokaido, or east-west shinkansen, but I wasn’t sure they’d have a ticket office, so I took the normal exit back to the station. I knew there was a train coming soon, so I stood in line at the ticket window that was nearby. For the second time, as I was waiting, an old woman walked up, stood slightly to the right and in front of me, and then darted up to the window when it was my turn. I don’t know if that’s just rudeness to foreigners, or they do that to everyone. I retrieved my ticket, which was on a train leaving in 20 minutes, then bought drinks and a beef sukiyaki bentoo, which ended up costing about 1000 yen. I’ve really started to notice cash expenditures lately, and even though it’s easy to translate yen to dollars, it still mentally doesn’t translate mentally when you spend it since it’s not “real money”.

I went into the ticket gate that was around the corner from the exit I took earlier, took the escalator to my train, and walked to my car. They weren’t letting anyone on the train yet, even though it was only 12 minutes until the departure. As I got to my car, I noticed a little sign on the waiting area door – WIRELESS NET ACCESS. Holy crap! I dove inside, sat down and cracked open the laptop. Sure enough, there were three or four networks with full strength; there was a very obvious wireless access point above my head. I connected up. When I tried to download my mail, however, I wasn’t able to connect. I tried pinging, and that went through. “I know what’s wrong,” I told myself. I opened a web browser, and sure enough, no matter where I went I was redirected to a login page. Ah, of course. It’s a pay service. I didn’t have time to figure it out, as the doors to the train had just opened. I got on board, found my seat, and then looked back at the page, which was still easily accessible from on the train. Apparently they have standard monthly fee service, but they also have pre-paid cards, that work over several days, which might be useful if I end up not having access in Tokyo. Although since Sakura has a wireless access point, albeit a slow one, I guess it’s not really a big deal.

The train departed, and I watched the rest of the Last Samurai as I ate my lunch. The buildings thinned as I got further and further from Tokyo, and soon they were replaced with rice fields, green hills, and coastline. As I watched the movie, from time to time, I’d look out the window while a swelling part of the soundtrack was playing. It went really well, and was an interesting contrast, considering the subject matter and that I was looking at modern Japan in real life. After the movie ended, I only had about an hour left on my batteries, so I decided to save that so I could check my mail somewhere in Kyoto to see about my reservation. The train arrived at 2:20, right on time, and since Kyoto isn’t the final stop, I made sure I was waiting by the door with all my stuff when the time came to get off.

As I stepped off, I smiled broadly; at that moment, over the PA, a woman’s voice spoke, “Kyoto…Kyoto desu….” and I immediately recognized the sound. Not just from my own personal experiences, but also from Lost in Translation, when Charlotte goes to Kyoto. It’s the exact same announcement, they didn’t add that in to the movie. It was very cool, and gave me a very welcomed feeling. I took the escalator down from the platform and also immediately recognized the shinkansen waiting area, which is very large at this station. It’s got several restaurants, souvenir shops, and convenience stores, plus big TVs to watch while you’re waiting. I remember all three times I’d been in this waiting area, and it was like I’d never left. I half expected to turn and see Casey and Cyndy, Molly, or Kelly. Not this time. It was just me, and suddenly I felt very, very alone.

I exited the area into the south part of the station, and decided I needed to see what Seiki said before walking over there, even though it isn’t far. I thought a good place to just randomly try was in the main part of Kyoto station, which is a very modern place. I took a set of escalators up and walked past the primary entrance gate to the normal JR lines. This place was bustling, and I found a quiet corner in a big art display near the coffee shop on the second floor to take out the computer. As I enabled the wireless, I found two full-strength signals, both with the name Miaka. I connected up to one and tried a web browser, which redirected me again. However, this time it had a link for English, so I clicked it.

“Miaka-net is a free Internet project sponsored by Intel and the city of Kyoto….” I read and leapt for joy. Free Internet! Perfect! I tried my mail, but no dice. In the message on the browser, I then read you have to get an account from the information booth in several areas around town, and then you’re able to use it. Fortunately, it showed one of them being the 2nd floor information booth in Kyoto station. I first tried the tourist information booth which was right behind me, and the woman there directed me to the city information booth, which is directly across from it, next to Mister Donut.

I told the woman I wanted to use Miaka Net, and she handed me a sheet to fill out. When that was complete, she gave me a sheet with a login, and then a much longer acceptable use document, all in Japanese. Apparently the way the do it is to have a VPN account, which allows you access to the outside world. She told me there was a table to the right, which is just for internet access, but it was occupied. I could wait, or I could buy something from next door and use one of their tables. I said I would buy some coffee, and then went to the coffee shop to the left of Mister Donut. I ordered a very expensive latte, then took a seat and enabled my laptop once more. I set up the VPN connection, and connected. Sure enough, it worked, and in a few moments I was downloading my mail. I discovered shortly thereafter that while it was free, it was extremely flaky, and kept kicking me off every minute or so. In retrospect, I wonder if I should have tried my other wireless card, as this is what Gene’s was doing as well. On the other hand, the VPN connection would connect, then hang up before negotiation was complete, which sounded like server errors to me. These people need a good system admin.

I did get a message back from Ryokan Seiki. He said they were full, but he did have one single room available for one night. That was fine, I wrote him, as I could just find another one elsewhere. I also had received a message from Alex about the weather and plans for tomorrow, and I said I’d give him a call when I got to the ryokan in a reply.
I uploaded my log, which managed to complete since it was small, then shut everything off and headed towards the Ryokan. It’s only two blocks south of the station, but you have to go underground to get there as the taxi stand area takes up anywhere you might be able to walk. I took the stairway down, then turned right and walked under the street. During the day, it’s easiest to take the escalators in the department store up, as it saves you the effort of carrying your bag up several flights of stairs. I did, and the exited the far door. As I walked through the door, two pretty girls, dressed in trendy outfits, somewhat tan, and with bleached hair walked into the building as I walked out. I passed one of them in the same door, and she looked at me and caught my eyes. I looked back, and as we passed, we both turned to follow the gaze and smiled at one another. Her friend giggled, and then they both continued on into the store. It was a nice moment, and as usual I did nothing about it. :P

The ryokan was just two blocks down on the left, and I stepped inside. “Ojama shimasu…” I called, signaling my entry. A few moments later, the otoosan walked through the door. “I’m Marc Hernandez,” I said.
“Ah, yes, Marc-san.”
“I just read your email, and one night is okay.”
“It’s okay? Okay, good. I’m very full right now, I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I told him, although it wasn’t *really* fine, since I didn’t want to have to move around a whole lot. He commented on how good my Japanese was, and then asked where I’d learned it. I went through the common conversation of having lived here a little and having majored in Japanese at UT. I realized that in spite of the fact that I’ve stayed here four different times, he didn’t recognize me. It’s not that big a deal; they cater a lot to foreigners I gather, and he probably sees dozens a week. I told him this was the fourth time I’d stayed, and he thanked me for that.

“Ah,” he suddenly said, “I do have a room for tomorrow night, but I’ll have to move you around. Do you want it?” I immediately took it, and tomorrow I’m going to have to shuffle from room 404 to room 202, which is a little bit of a pain, but that’s better than having nowhere. Thursday I’ll still have to find somewhere though, unless he has a cancellation. He also pointed out the free internet terminal across from the front desk. I took my bag up the elevator, waving hi to his little cute dog, which I think is a long-haired Chihuahua. The room is small, and Japanese-style (which I like), but in very very good condition. There’s a free TV with an English movie channel, a small table, and a refrigerator. All amenities that more expensive places don’t have. It’s 5500 yen a night for a single, and that price goes down if more people stay in the room (per person, I mean). The double and triple rooms are bigger.

I called Alex. He had said in email he was just getting over the flu, and wasn’t up for much, but he’d gladly meet me for ramen. We made plans to meet at Gojo Kawaramachi, which is an intersection, at 5pm. I changed clothes out of my sweatier ones (from having lugged a bag around at high speed in hot weather) and then walked back into the city. I wasn’t sure where I was going exactly, but I decided to check out the area. I wandered through the department store that I snuck through briefly, then visited the gigantic Isetan Department Store, which is as integrated into it as you can possibly get. I took the back route this time though, walking along the underground and cutting across The Cube shopping mall, which is under the bus terminal. The Isetan is gorgeous, and really rather odd. It is a very long store, and also very high, and you access each floor by riding escalators that continue in one direction. That is, you get off one, and walk forward to get on the next. In this manner, there’s a huge atrium that runs along the length of the store, and it’s 9 stories high. I searched briefly for some Totoro coffee mugs in the porcelain section, then continued to the top where there used to be a gigantic arcade. As I got off the escalator on the top floor I had to turn and make sure I was on the same floor. Alex had told me a long time ago that the arcade is gone, but this was ridiculous. It was an entirely different place! The clicking lights and loud noises had been replaced by a long marble hallway along which several dine-in restaurants had been built. All seemed rather upscale, too, which was in sharp contrast to anything that had existed there before. I walked the length of it and saw some rather interesting places, which I really wanted to try. However, some more things surprised me – the crepe place was gone and even the fast food court around the corner was now upscale coffee shops and eateries. This was an even bigger shock than the arcade, as all of those stores were doing well, but they apparently kicked them out when they remodeled. How very odd.

I took an exit I hadn’t taken out of there before, which said “SKYWAY”. This led to a long metal walkway, which overlooked the entire length of the station. It’s all very futuristic and cool. I traversed this, passing several foreign high school student sitting around along the way. Two long escalators down, and I found myself on the far end of the station. I paused for a moment to take several pictures of Kyoto Station. It’s really difficult to get across the grand scale of this place; it’s like a 10 story building that’s been hollowed out and left open to the outside. I love the atmosphere here, and Kyoto is really high up on the places I’d like to be all the time. I realized it was about 4:20, and I wasn’t sure exactly if I remembered where Gojo Kawaramachi was, so I decided to head there. I took the walkway across the street and snapped a picture of a woman in a car who had gotten trapped by people when she ran the red light. I didn’t have a way point for Gojo, but I knew inherently where it was anyway. Besides, the buildings were really interfering with the GPS signal anyway. I realized at this point, as I’d just passed a group of blonde girls, that I’d seen more foreigners in the last half hour than I’d seen in all that time that I’d been in Japan this trip. Even in Misawa, where it’s got a gigantic military base, out in the town there weren’t this many foreigners! It’s a huge travel destination, though, so that explains a lot of it.

I walked for a few blocks until I came upon Shijo Kawaramachi (shi is four, go is five) and then turned north. I thought it was closer than it was, but Alex’s estimate was correct. It was about 20 minutes from the station. I arrived and took a seat by a rent a car place. About fifteen minutes later, right at 5, Alex showed up in a baseball cap and Osaka baseball jersey and carrying an umbrella. We shook hands, and he said I was the first person to come visit him in Japan! “Well, everyone else is just a loser,” I kiddingly told him. We walked around the corner to the little ramen shop, and went inside. He ordered a Mini Ramen, as his stomach was still not good from being sick, and I got the Jumbo. We talked for a long time and caught up on what the other had been doing. He told me that his girlfriend, Mizue, was really looking forward to seeing how good my Japanese was, although she speaks in a Kansai dialect, so that should prove interesting. We decided to walk around some, so we got up to pay. Alex paid for his, but I was short the small bills necessary to pay for my meal. I had to break out a 10000 yen bill, which the man wasn’t happy to see. I apologized profusely, and he provided me change. He gave me a 2000 yen bill, which I’d never had before. Yuriko used one in Hakodate, and told me they were rare. Neat.

We walked into his neighborhood, which is called Gojo Rakuen (I think), which means something like “5th ward Paradise”. The rakuen kanji is “fun” and “garden”. The reason for this, Alex explained, is that the entire area is littered with brothels, which are typically designated by a white lantern out front. He said you’d see lots of women running around in kimono, and they were typically prostitutes. Indeed, we past a number of places with the white lantern, and at least one has s shoji screen showing women serving men. This is not geisha, if you’re wondering – it’s a totally different thing. Most of them are older women, apparently, and Mizue says they’re probably cheap. At some point Alex pissed the owner of one off; he was trying out Mizue’s scooter, and about crashed it into one on the places’ entryways. The woman came out, yelling and screaming at him, hence he has at least one enemy in the neighborhood.

Also interesting about the area is that it’s apparently yakuza (Japanese mafia) run. Alex’s house is owned by mafia, along with most of the buildings around there. There’s a big mafia building nearby, which we passed and noticed it was populated by several scary-looking guys and very nice cars. I didn’t take a picture. :) Around the corner, he showed me, was the boss’ house, which was much nicer than everything else around. He showed me a small area nearby (on which a Cadillac was parked) where the local yakuza have a summer festival and have a good time with the area residents. Alex has a picture with the big yakuza boss, even. It’s kind of bizarre, if you think about it. We dropped by his house briefly, which at one time was a brothel, and saw his room, which is pretty small. The house is likely very, very old, and all electrical wiring is on the outside of the walls. Looked a little chintzy to me too. Alex does get DSL though, through the owner (and subsequently the boss), for only 2000 yen. At this point Alex was really tired, so after loaning me a Kyoto guide book and a Kansai dialect book, I went off on my own again. We made sure we could make text communication with our cell phones, then he went to bed.

The rest of the evening was spent walking. A lot. I wandered around for a very long time, checking out the hostess club district, where the barkers looked at me like I was nuts for walking down the street. Foreigners aren’t really allowed in these. I then found the big covered shopping area, and I meandered around for a while, looking at store after store. I stopped in some places and bought souvenirs, and unfortunately I had to give up my 2000 yen bill without getting a picture of it first. It was really evident at this point that I was not enjoying this “wander around alone thing” and it was a constant reminder that I don’t like traveling alone. I saw endless numbers of things I thought were interesting, some of which I took pictures of, but a lot I just flat out don’t remember. It would have been nice to have someone else to see those things with.

I located the Animate store here, and immediately knew where I was. It was closed, though, as it was already almost 8pm, so I decided to come back later. I walked out to the main intersection by the Hankyu department store and turned right. My instinct told me that the station was right in front of me, but I wasn’t sure. I turned on the GPS and managed to get a signal, briefly, but long enough to find out I was right, the waypoint to Kyoto Station was right in front of me. And some people say GPSes aren’t useful. :)

I walked for about half an hour, stopping to take pictures of Higashi-Gonji, the big temple close to Kyoto station. Inside Kyoto Station, I ran around taking lots of pictures at night with the tripod, as it was really very pretty and very futuristic. Subsequently, I returned to the ryokan by way of the Family Mart where I picked up a purin (like flan), a grape gelatin type dessert, and a grapefruit wine, which sounded really yummy. I ate these in the room, watched “Enough” on the movie channel, and then went to bed, planning on an early wake up time.

--Hikaru