Kyoto and the Shinkansen


Click here to read the article in the University of Colorado Alumni Magazine, Coloradan, about Seize The World, if you have not already done so!

Life in Kyoto, Japan is good.  My friend Ian McKittrick and I rode about 200 miles from Narita, Japan through Tokyo and around Mt. Fuji to the city of Hamamatsu where we boarded a commuter train bound for Kyoto.  Well…it was actually bound for someplace else.  But after two transfers and after having ridden three trains, we wound up in Kyoto.  Ian and I were pleased to have completed about 2/3 of the journey from Narita to Kyoto by bicycle – we did the rest by train – and were happy to have shared some amazing experiences on the road.
We found our way out of the city of Tokyo on our bicycles . . . an all-day affair that ended at a campsite near the city of Fujiyoshida and with dinner at a hunting lodge type restaurant at which Ian and I were the only patrons for an hour until a few more folks arrived…we enjoyed eerie music-box style music that was utterly relaxing as we sat next to a warm fire and looked at antlers and bullets hanging on the wall.  A very peaceful, enjoyable end to a long, stressful day.

Ian was enthusiastic about seeing Mt. Fuji, so our route took us along highway 20 to the city of Fujiyoshida and then along highway 71 south around the volcano to the much-larger city of Fujinomiya.  Our circumnavigation of the volcano was an experience characterized much-more by frigid rain than by picturesque views of beautiful symmetrical snow-capped volcanoes.  However, the experience was still a good one.  From Fujiyoshida, Ian and I enjoyed a 20-mile descent (through rain) that managed to be enjoyable despite the cold.

We found our way through more cities, we stayed in a hotel after bitter cold rain one night, and we camped for a couple of nights.  The highlights of the tour of Japan have been varied…but one of them has been that during the evenings, we have listened to radio broadcasts while camping in the tents.  I would download podcasts to my computer while we were in hotels so that we could listen to radio during nights when we were in the tents.   We enjoyed listening to a show about conspiracy theories, and then talking about the endless possibilities the next day while riding the bikes.  Podcasts have turned out to be a fabulous discovery…perhaps radio in general.
Now, Ian and I have arrived in Kyoto, Japan.  We spent last night camped at what was, perhaps our best campsite of our tour in Japan.  After a string of commuter train rides to cover about 140 miles from Hamamatsu to Kyoto, which is located on Japan’s south coast, we arrived in the popular tourist destination at 8:30p.m. on Saturday night and began to assemble our bikes.  2 hours of fruitless searching for a hotel room saw us back near the train station once more, and had me wondering how it had somehow slipped under my radar to remember to reserve beds for ourselves in Kyoto before a Saturday night arrival.
During the entire experience of searching for hostels and hotels, I kept asking Ian if I had anything strange on my face before entering various hotel and hostel lobbies to try to check in.  I did not want to appear any more shifty than I already did, arriving by bicycle at 9:30p.m. with flashing lights, at my wit’s end.  I was reminded of the importance of having a clean face by a recent post from my friend George the Cyclist in which a long day on the road, and a face full of dirt, had prevented him from finding a hotel for a couple of hours.  As it turns out, Ian and I never did find a room in Kyoto yesterday.  But we had bikes and tents.
Ian and I decided to go to Mini Stop – Japan’s most common, and perhaps highest quality convenience store – in order to energize and regroup before setting out in search of a campsite.  We knew from our maps of the city that there were large blank spots to the east.  Blank spots usually mean trees, and camping options.  We headed east.  15 minutes later, after some steep but short climbing, we found ourselves at a sort of a classic city overlook point at about 10p.m.  Nice lights, great view of Kyoto’s version of the Space Needle (less-dramatically called the Kyoto Tower…).
At this point, we were standing in what we thought was a vacant lot for a yet-to-be-constructed house.  Morning revealed that it was actually a parking lot for an adjacent Shinto  Shrine.  The view at night was spectacular, we got sleep, and the following morning – this morning – we were energized enough to visit the Nijo-jo Castle and the Kamigamo-jinja Shrine, two of Kyoto’s seventeen UNESCO (that stands for “U.N. – E.S.C.O.”)  World Heritage Sites.  The Nijo-jo Castle is a 17th-century castle built by a Shogun ruler.  The grounds of Nijo-jo were greatly expanded upon by subsequent rulers, with more palaces, more paintings, towers, etc.  It is a massive complex with beautiful rock walls, perfect angles, gardens, and nearly empty palace interiors with sliding wooden panels, tissue paper windows, and textured wooden floors.  Ian and I saw all of it in fall colors, with leaves falling, and Japanese tourists out in force and high spirits to visit the Nijo-jo castle – a great time to visit Japan as Ian said.*
The other monument we visited, the Kamigamo-jinja, is Japan’s oldest Shrine.  It dates from at least as far back as the 8th century, though it may be older.  We rode our bikes out there on one of Kyoto’s bike paths following a river, watching people walking their dogs (everyone has extremely well-groomed dogs here).
This evening, Ian and I are bedded down at K’s House Backpacker’s Hostel.  We discussed, after checking in here, how we felt somewhat strange arriving at K’s…  I remembered how my friend James had mentioned to me that sometimes he felt a bid odd checking into these hostels after stretches on the road…as though he were wandering in out of the wild.  I understand that comment a bit better now.  Ian and I rolled up on our bikes initially to K’s last night, cardboard bike boxes strapped onto the backs of our bikes, fatigue radiating powerfully from our eyes, through the dirty lenses of our glasses, and, surely, into the hearts of all who encountered us as we searched for anyplace to sleep at 10p.m. (we need the cardboard boxes to box our bikes for the train ride back to Narita).
When we checked in today, not showered, not shaved, it came as no surprise when one of the receptionists, Yoshi, half-jokingly asked us if the boxes were our houses.  Ian quickly clarified the nature of the boxes by letting Yoshi know that they were only used as housing for our bicycles.
Tomorrow, we will house our bikes inside our cardboard boxes once again and board the Shinkansen bullet train bound for Tokyo at 5,790Mph.  Ian and I are both excited about the Shinkansen.  Our experience of Japan has departed slightly from the classic bicycle tour model, I suppose…but on day one of Ian’s arrival in Japan, we sort of agreed that we were in Japan right now, and that if we could make it happen while we were here, we would.  Whatever it is that “it” might be.  We can make the Shinkansen happen tomorrow, so we probably will.  So far, a lot of amazing things have happened leading up to tomorrow.  Stay tuned for another update soon.
*U.N.E.S.C.O. actually stands for United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization…


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