I fell in love with Kyoto one night in July 2008.
It was our first night in Japan’s ancient capital. We’d arrived around noon and our ryokan hosts had instructed us to call them from the train station. Walking around Kyoto wasn’t the problem — it was the sheer difficulty in being able to even find the ryokan in the first place.
Kyoto being so old, the streets wind here and there, they ebb and flow much like a little stream — there’s no easy way to really give visitors directions. So, once we were nicely ensconced in our ryokan, our hosts outfitted us with some helpful maps, and we set out to discover Kyoto.
We then walked along Pontocho Alley, which runs parallel to the Kamo River in the Gion district. By now it had gotten dark, and we were hungry. There were many fantastical restaurants along here, so we pretty much just randomly walked into one. It turned out to be SO FABULOUS. It may have been one of our first truly gourmet meals. I say this because in addition to being atmospheric, gorgeous, and utterly delicious, it was also rather expensive. We were so very, very happy.
As we left Pontocho Alley, we paused on the bridge to take a picture of the Kamo River and the restaurant at which we’d just dined.
It was at this point that I’m pretty sure the wind took the sole map we had along. I was the map-keeper, and after this picture was taken, I simply could not find the map anywhere on my person. It was absolutely gone.
We assessed the situation: we were new to Kyoto, could not speak nor read the language, our ryokan was apparently difficult to find even in the daylight, it was late at night, and our map was missing. And yet… we were content, tipsy, and in the midst of the heart-stoppingly exquisite city that is Kyoto. So, we just walked and walked and walked.
We must have walked for hours. There were definitely moments that I figured we’d just be walking around Kyoto for the rest of our lives… and strangely enough, that thought didn’t freak me out at all.
Even though I was the loser-of-the-map, Andrew still trusted my unpredictable sense of direction, and I did try to guide us along streets that I felt might possibly take us back to our hidden ryokan which we’d only seen once in our lives (though we did have a picture of it on our camera…).
Andrew says I’m remembering wrong, but I swear I could hear the night-sounds of the animals at the zoo. While we didn’t go to Kyoto for the zoo, we were indeed staying relatively nearby, so I just followed the sounds of the animals, echoing in the darkened streets. For me, this added a haunting quality to the whole experience.
It probably goes without saying by now, but I’ll say it anyway — yes, we did in fact eventually find our way back to our ryokan. Although we weren’t entirely sure we were even at the right place, until I dug the key out of my purse and applied it to the lock on the gate. It opened, we entered, and collapsed with relief in our room.
The next day, we brought along EXTRA maps.
While getting lost in Kyoto — at night! — is probably not something you’d ever do on purpose… I very strongly recommend it.
If you can, go get lost in Kyoto.