We arrived at Osaka airport on a Sunday evening. It was quiet, for an airport, and clean. Clean by any standards, but especially clean for an airport. We were met by Midori Furukowa, one of the Japanese judges who would be joining Axel on the panel for the CDI at Miki the following weekend, and who had graciously offered to be our tour guide.
We cabbed up to Kyoto, about an hour’s drive, and landed at the ANA hotel, which is situated directly across from the old palace. The ANA is a big hotel, catering to tourists, business men and weddings, with regular shuttles to Kyoto station, and multiple restaurants and bars. Because December is not high tourist season, I think we may have been the only non-Asian people staying there, and throughout our stay in Kyoto, we overheard just a few English or European words spoken at any of the attractions.
Because many of those attractions are scattered throughout Kyoto, the Tour Guide Taxi has developed. These cabs are driven by uniformed drivers who wear white gloves (drivers, hotel livery, guards, traffic police, others I can’t think of, wear white gloves). These cabs can be hired for the day, have designated parking at the shrines and attractions, and most drivers are multi-lingual. They accompany you through the sites, acting not only as drivers but as informed tour guides as well.
We were extremely glad not to have to drive ourselves! Both Axel and I have driven on the left side of the road, in England, Australia and New Zealand, but in all those places we’ve been able to read the road signs. But to drive here? Most street signs have the names in both Japanese and English, but the English words are often small and easily missed. And besides, the traffic in Kyoto, while more orderly than in many places, is still city traffic, complete with a huge percentage of the population that commutes on bicycles. On the main streets, cyclists usually ride on the sidewalks, and when it’s too crowded they get off and walk their bikes. Many of the side streets are only wide enough for just one car, with no sidewalks … but there are still bikes and pedestrians. It all works, but it might not have worked quite so well if we’d been driving!
The Japanese use two different alphabets, one casual and immediate, the other more formal and nuanced, as well as Chinese characters. For someone like me, who learns language visually, by reading and sounding things out phonetically, well…. good luck! So instead of trying to figure out what the signs say over the stores, I just peer in the windows. The only exception are a few chains: McDonalds, 7-Eleven, Big Boy, whose names are … their names. So far I’ve learned “Kon’nichiwa” (hello), and “Arrigato” (thank you). And I’ve added Japan to the list of places that I can order a “biru” (beer) and “misu” (water).
Space is at a premium here. Every square meter is used for something. Houses are compact, and pressed close together. Yards are small, and carefully tended. The concept of bonsai is extended to the trees and shrubs: they are trained artfully, but in a way that appears natural. The spaces may be tiny, but they create a buffer between the outside world and the front door. In more private outdoor spaces, clothes are hung in orderly rows to dry. If there is a bit of sunlit ground, there is a vegetable garden, and on the outskirts of town every small plot that hasn’t been built on is cultivated. In December there are cool weather crops such as cabbage, turnips, carrots, and radishes ready for harvest, and rice seems to be a constant.