I have never been on the perfect vacation. I doubt I ever will. My weekend in Kyoto was wonderful, please don’t doubt that, but it wasn’t all pretty temples and ice cream. I don’t think the “perfect vacation” exists. There is always something that is bound to go wrong. Some unforeseen difficulty. However, it is the difficult times that make the most interesting stories. It’s working through language barriers, mysterious menus, and transportation horrors, that make a person a traveler, not just a tourist.
One of our favorite traveler stories is from our time in Portugal. Jared and I were happily riding the sunny yellow #28 tram around Lisbon. We were delighted that this tram had a stop near our hostel, and its route took us all around the city. We were lucky to have obtained a seat by the window and planned to ride the entire route back to our hostel. We were blissfuly watching the city slip by when the tram came to a stop. No worries, it made stops throughout the route. A few people got off, and there were about 10 other happy tourists sitting in their seat just like us. Suddenly, the tram driver turned around and in a gravely, frustrated voice said, “please, get off.” Don’t mistake that “please” for politeness. He was not happy with any of us. We were bewildered. We were frustrated. We were lost. As we had been planning on riding the entire circuit, we had not been paying any attention to the stops. We had no idea what road we were on, much less what part of the city we were in! Eventually we found our way back to our hostel, and ended up with a fun little story. Jared and I enjoy mimicking our angry tram driver, and find humor in looking back on the situation.
I wish the Japanese transportation system had been as amusing. I would rather a moment of confusion in Lisbon than the hours of frustration we had in Japan. We’ve traveled enough to understand the basics of public transportation, and we can usually figure out signs well enough to get around. Not in Japan. We had to ask for help at every turn. The main problem was that their transportation system is not streamlined. None of it seemed connected, no general rules or guidelines. It was every bus for itself. Some buses you needed to use a ticket for, some buses you had to pay in exact change, some buses had a flat rate, some buses had a variable rate. One bus was 10 minutes late. At one stop, buses 11, 98, & 23 were supposed to make stops, but random buses were also showing up, destinations unknown. Whereas in Seoul, we use one card for the bus, subway, and even taxis, in Kyoto there was a separate card used only for the subway. We had to buy tickets for the trains, but at one point our friend was given two tickets as a “set,” while Jared and I each had a single ticket. The set and the single ticket worked on the same train. Why? No idea. A few times we made it to the correct platform, but there was no indication of which side our train would be on. No signs. Maybe an unhelpful map. It made me really appreciate Korea’s transportation system. One might assume that the language barrier was the culprit in our transportation woes. It was a factor; however, we have traveled in plenty of countries without knowing the language and have never struggled as much as we did on this trip. Luckily, we never got on the wrong train or bus, but we were those sad looking tourists who just stare at their map and frown.
One place that we finally made our way to was the Sagano Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama. It is located to the west of Kyoto. We left the train station, and despite the lack of signs and an unhelpful map at the station, we found our way to the forest. The forest itself is fairly small, and the path that leads through it is just 1/3 mile. I knew this going in, but had seen so many wonderful pictures of the place that I was unconcerned with how large the forest was. It wouldn’t have been a problem either if there had not been so many people! I suppose it’s hypocritical of a tourist to complain about how many people are at a tourist site; they’re just like me, right? I expected the bamboo forest to be quiet and serene. Nope, we found more schoolchildren. (It was a Sunday; do they ever go home?!) There were rickshaws going up and down the path, and even a taxi drove through the forest. To keep people away from the bamboo, there is a fence about three feet high, which I thought detracted from the view of the forest. Maybe it doesn’t have the same effect for taller people. I suppose I was disappointed because I had an expectation in my mind, which really wasn’t based on anything expect some internet pictures.
I was quite happy to find a little souvenir though. An old man had a area set up along the path. He carves dragonflies out of bamboo; they are so perfectly balanced that they will stay up with just the tip balancing on your finger. He knew an easy target when he spotted me and had me come over for him to demonstrate his craft. I wanted one immediately. My red and gold dragonfly is now happily balancing on the basket of napkins on my kitchen table.
Our other difficulty with this trip was finding food. Jared and I really like to eat. It makes us happy. When on vacation, we like to eat even more than normal. So, on our first night in Kyoto, we asked the receptionist at our hostel for some recommendations. We set off with our map and her advice. The first place was packed, and there was a 50 minute wait. Same with the second place. So, we started just randomly walking in restaurants. We tried three different places, in each restaurant, the host would hold his arms up to make an X and say “no table.” We had been trying to find a restaurant for about 45 minutes, had been traveling all day, and we were getting cranky from our hunger. I wondered if there was a little racial profiling going on because we were being turned away as soon as we walked through the door. At one restaurant there was a clean table right in front of us, and we were told to leave. However, I saw other Japanese people turned away too, so I know it was not just us. That night we finally found a little dive cafe and ordered beef (I think) with rice, miso soup, and other unidentified food. We called it the “Japanese Huddle House.” It was edible, but not exciting. While we tried to write off the difficulties as it being late on a Friday night, we ran into this problem over and over. Restaurants were either difficult to find, or very often full.
While walking along the Philosopher’s Path the next day, we again had problems finding a restaurant. There simply were not many around. We finally got to an area where there was a sandwich cafe and some unnamed Japanese restaurant. We studied the plastic foods in the window of the Japanese restaurant and decided to give it a go. Best decision ever. We had no idea what we were walking in to, but we were happily introduced to an amazing food called okonomiyaki. It should be “okonomiyummy;” I never expected to find Japanese food this delicious. I don’t understand why I haven’t seen this dish in America. Americans would love it! Our hostel receptionist called it a crepe, but it is more like a quiche. All the ingredients are mixed in a bowl; there’s egg, shredded cabbage, “special sauce,” peppers, and a type of meat. The ingredients vary based on the customer, restaurant, and region of Japan. Once mixed, the raw ingredients are poured onto a griddle right at the table. The okonomiyaki takes about 20 minutes to cook; and it is very tempting to start eating early. Once cooked, you use a brush to slather on a red sauce, similar to Worcestershire sauce or barbecue sauce. You can also sprinkle on seasonings such as garlic, parsley, or fish flakes. The okonomiyaki is cut into smaller sections and eaten with chopsticks. Amazing. It’s all crispy on the outside, and melted goodness on the inside. I loved that we chose a tiny, unpretentious restaurant and came out with a love for a new dish! On our last night we ate at a restaurant called Donguri; I ordered okonomiyaki with sausage. The sausage turned out to be hot dog, but it was still delicious!
Having difficulties finding food was frustrating, but it was not nearly as bad as the anxiety filled hours when we couldn’t find money. First, we had a hard time adjusting to the currency. We are used to Korean won, where $1.00 is approximately ₩1,000. Then we go to Japan and use yen, where $1.00 is about ¥100. I would see 1,000 and think won, and expect to pay about $1.00, when it was really $10.00. Also, the Japanese have a lot of coins. There’s a 500 yen coin, a 100, a 50, a 10, and some others that aren’t labeled and I never really understood. We used bills a lot at first and collected heavy amounts of coins. At one point, our friend was desperately trying to buy a drink from a vending machine. He had put in about $10.00 worth of coins before he and Jared figured out how much money was going in to the machine! We paid cash for most things, and even though we had pulled out the equivalent of a few hundred dollars, at one point we found ourselves getting low on money. We found our way to an ATM and were shocked to find out it didn’t accept MasterCard. What? I know American Express isn’t accepted around the world, but c’mon, MasterCard? We’ve never run into this problem with our travels, not in Europe, not in Korea. So, we went to the next ATM, and the next, and the next. Tourists in Gion, beware! Most of the ATMs didn’t accept cards from banks outside of Japan. It was a very uncomfortable few hours. We usually use cash when traveling except for big purchases. It’s like a safety net. If you have cash and your passport, then you’ll be fine. Cash is just better; being low on cash is unnerving. We were able to make it back to Kyoto Station where there were much more obliging ATMs, and we stocked up again.
So, please don’t be deceived by all the pretty pictures of our travels. The pictures of temples and landscapes only tell part of a journey’s story. The difficulties leading up to the scenic spot are not always apparent. However, I embrace them. They lead you to a more authentic type of travel. They lead to an appreciation of other places, a special souvenir, or a new favorite food.
As I started to write this post, I had to pause and let this past weekend really sink in. We just flew off to Japan for the weekend. We planned the trip in less than two weeks. When I came home on Monday, it was to South Korea, not Texas or Tennessee. Is this really my life? How am I so blessed to have these experiences? Thanks to all of you who are supporting us in this new chapter of our lives!
PS: Once again, I have more pictures on my Flickr page. Check it out!