“Thank you, kind stranger.” Thus begins the paragraph in my journal about my arrival in Kyoto. Despite maps and a good sense of direction, I had no idea which way to go to find the hotel. A couple stopped to help (and thus missed their crosswalk light). The young woman used the maps feature on her cell phone to determine the correct route for me. “Had that brief interaction not happened,” I wrote, “I’d have been in the wrong place by far. She saved me frustration and exhaustion, and I’ll never see her again. She surely has no idea...”
Don’t underestimate the daunting nature of functional illiteracy. For a solo-travel Westerner, arriving in Japan even in the 21st century often involves encountering signs in icons, rarely in English. I have often found myself comparing, squiggle by squiggle, the symbols before me (a time-consuming but useful strategy). Or seeking help from people at street corners!
While it’s a certain sort of fun to be left to my own devices, I was just as happy to meet up with my travel companions the following day. Before that, though, I did manage a few forays to see Kyoto on my own.
The first evening, I walked the main drag (Shijo Street) a mile or so east from my hotel to the bridge over Kamogawa River. A couple of blocks to the north was the geisha (hanamachi) district. Known for its quaint, cobblestoned side streets (one with a creek running through), I discovered a thoroughly charming scene in the early evening light made even more magical by a light drizzle. Women dressed in traditional kimono were among those eating in the fancy restaurants along the way. When I revisited the district in daylight the following day, the popularity of the area for engagement or wedding photo sessions was clear.
My stomach prodded me to seek nourishment, but that demanded a high degree of social courage on my part. I let my nose lead me, and a few yards after passing one modest doorway where a menu in English (bad English, but English nonetheless!) caught my attention, I realized the hunt was over. I turned back, silenced my raging insecurities, ducked under the cloth that typically hangs across doorways, opened the door, and found a tiny, 6-seat counter and a couple of small tables: dinner!
On a different day, I jetlag prompted me to get up at dawn to explore. The streets felt perfectly safe, and I kept a mental map of my wandering. As the sun rose in the east, I watched the full moon set to the west in the clear, bluing sky.
Without foreknowledge of it, I stumbled across a major temple. Built in 1591, Nishi Honganji (“-ji” being Japanese for “temple”) is headquarters to one of the two factions of Jodo-Shin, one of Japan’s largest Buddhist sects [Source: https://www.japan-guide.com]. I was nearly alone in the immense courtyard, with a huge and ancient ginko tree whose larger branches were held up by supports. I stood, and listened to a hauntingly beautiful chorus of morning chanting by dozens, maybe hundreds, of voices coming from within Founder’s Hall.
It was the kind of splendid, magical time that makes solo discovery worth every moment of uncertainty.