All right! We’re finally back with the final installment of our Kyoto Fall & Winter Trip Report (if you’ve missed it, start with Part 1); the culmination of our 2-month stay in Japan. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover in this final installment, so rather than beginning with a rambling introduction, I’m going to dig right into the reader questions you asked in the comments to Part 2…
What was the hardest thing about being away from home for so long?
Without a doubt, being away from our kids, Walter (miniature dachshund) and Yossarian (cat). They stayed with Sarah’s mom, where the summer of their puppy and kitten days were spent when we lived there one year during college. That made it much easier for them–I don’t think they even noticed we were gone until we got back!–but it was still tough for us.
The other big challenge, and I’d say this is a double-edged sword, was being isolated from the rest of the world. The clock in Japan is basically the reverse of the Eastern Time Zone, meaning we woke up to a full day of news and went to bed as the United States was waking up. Social media updates were largely not occurring in real time, so it was easy to cut back on that.
We didn’t watch television at all for two months, and I read far less of the Washington Post, New York Times, and Politico. At a time when the news is generally a barrage of depressing updates, this was a wonderful reprieve. It also led to us being far more productive than normal. You’d be surprised how much you can get done by eliminating or cutting down on television, news, and social media…and all it takes is traveling halfway around the world!
The downside is the isolation. For most people, the biggest component of this will be minimal interactions with others, but Sarah and I both work remotely, and our interactions are already largely limited to one another. There’s a good chance that we talked to more people in Japan than we would’ve during the same time in the United States, as we had plenty of conversations with random strangers (particularly restauranteurs).
I did feel guilty about being less informed as to what was happening in the United States. Then again, the amount of news and commentary I was consuming prior (and subsequent) to this trip was probably unhealthy.
What’s best about Japanese culture?
Omotenashi. That’s the word to describe Japanese service culture, and if you haven’t heard the term before, you no doubt will in the lead up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, as Japan seeks to highlight this. As they should–we’ve yet to encounter a visitor to Japan who didn’t feel the impact of this wholehearted service. Even at McDonald’s or 7-11, you receive service like if you were at the Four Seasons.
This, too, is somewhat a double-edged sword–albeit with one really dull side. While you do receive exemplary service and welcoming treatment in Japan, it’s also obvious you’re a cultural outsider (not for nothing, the term “gaijin” means both foreigner and outsider). On a short trip to Japan, you might never feel this, noticing only the omotenashi. After a while, you start experiencing examples of both.
Personally, I don’t find that to be a huge deal. I will gladly accept the outsider status if it comes with the welcoming treatment and some latitude to make faux pas. Maybe I’d have a different opinion if I were trying to live in Japan permanently, but as a temporary visitor, it’s almost all upside.
Did you experience temple fatigue?
I did not. To the contrary, I experienced less temple fatigue than I have on previous visits. Part of this was probably pacing. Outside of the beginning of our stay in Kyoto when I was racing against the clock to get photos before the leaves fell and a few days of itinerary testing, the number of temples we did per day was lower than on past 4-5 day visits to Kyoto.
As for the other explanation, I’d liken it (as I would so many things) to Walt Disney World. The first time you go, you’re overwhelmed by all the rides, and maybe you don’t know much about any of them, but you do know you want to do as many as possible. Even with some research, you still don’t have tight grasp on their differences, etc. It’s all overwhelming.
After a trip or two, you know a lot more. You can rattle off your favorites, and even have some basic knowledge about them. As you get further into it, maybe you learn about Hidden Mickeys, and start thinking of yourself as a true expert. You even forget how you didn’t know all of this at one point, and shudder when others refer to Haunted Mansion as “the haunted house.” Then you start learning even more–reading niche books, attending D23 panels, etc. You think back to when you viewed Hidden Mickeys as “expert” knowledge as quaint.
I’d say I’m now at the “Hidden Mickey stage” of Kyoto temples. I’ve learned enough to tell them apart, and that has made each experience more interesting and satisfying for me. I feel I have a good level of knowledge about each major temple, but I know I have random knowledge gaps, and I fear I’m going to look back on what I know now in 5 years and chuckle. (You could say I’m not even that far along–I butcher the name of many temples when I have to say them aloud!)
Any reflections on your first long trip, how expectations differed from reality, what you might do differently next time?
I’ve already covered how our expectation of a slow-paced “living like a local” experience was unrealistic, and changed quickly when we arrived. Beyond that, I think expectations were pretty reasonable.
One thing I’d do differently next time–and this itself is probably an unrealistic expectation–is to have a more romanticized travel experience. For example, taking a book to a Zen temple and sitting there, reading for a few hours. Starting mornings with a brisk jog up the steps of Fushimi Inari. Working from a tea house or coffee shop (probably Starbucks since I’m not sure of the etiquette of this elsewhere) with my laptop instead of just sitting in our Airbnb.
Another one is making friends. I know I wrote that I didn’t mind the isolation not more than a few paragraphs ago, but I do think it’d be nice to make some friends who share mutual interests. We’ve made several friends in Tokyo, but that has not happened beyond Disney.
This is probably totally unrealistic given the language barrier, and I don’t even know how we’d go about it. I do know there’s a photography community in Kyoto, which seems like the most logical way. Next time we’re there, I’m going to start posting more photos and such on Instagram, and we’ll see what happens. Probably nothing at all, but it’s at least worth a shot. (I’m not setting my expectations too high for all of this–if I take my laptop to Starbucks once, it’ll be a small victory.)
We’ll get to find out soon, though, as we’re heading back to Japan. The big motivation is as simple as returning to a place we love, but we also have some “unfinished business” in the form of research…
Above is a screenshot of my drafts folder, which has ~20 posts about Kyoto in it. Several of these are totally done, including all of the temple ones at the top, and our 2-Day Kyoto Highlights Itinerary. Others are several thousand words in, and are 75% done, like our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan. Others are almost entirely done, like the other 1-day itineraries, but “need” a photo or detail I missed.
Doing this last bit of research and getting these posts in final form is a huge motivation for going back. Hopefully, I’ll finish that early in the trip, and that will open the floodgates on all of this Kyoto content…which most of you will ignore. 😉
I’m not even entirely sure why I’m being so obsessive about these, rather than just including a ‘work in progress’ caveat and going back to update the posts when I learn more. I’ve done that before, and it’s not like this is a physical guidebook that’ll instantly be purchased by thousands of people.
We were going to return to Kyoto regardless for a week during cherry blossom season before heading to Tokyo Disneyland for its 35th Anniversary festivities. However, upon pricing out 7-nights in an Airbnb during peak sakura season versus monthly rentals, we discovered the latter was actually cheaper. That was the perfect excuse to get us there sooner.
Finally…the boar encounter!
This trip report hasn’t been much of a report on our trip, so I’ll wrap it up with the very last night we were in Kyoto. For sunset, we went to Fushimi Inari, walking up to the lower outlook point on Mt. Inari, something we did fairly regularly given that our apartment was 5 minutes from the shrine.
After sunset, we wandered around, waiting for crowds to clear out. I had “just one more” night photo of the shrine I wanted to get, because of course I did. We also wanted to see the kittens we had befriended that live by one of the gift shops. All of this is pretty unremarkable–a pretty normal evening for us in Kyoto.
While I was trying to take a coax one of the cats in front of my camera for an eerie photo of it alone in the shrine (despite what it looks like below, I was not attempting a cat selfie), Sarah called to me that she heard something snoring in the woods beyond the torii gates.
I walked over to where she was, and listened for a while, but didn’t hear anything. We had just been commenting on how we had seen so many signs warning us to beware of wild monkeys, snakes, bears, and all sorts of animals, yet hadn’t seen anything aside from cats. We joked that this was “false advertising” and that we were disappointed we hadn’t encountered anything.
She kept saying “there it is, do you hear it?!” and I kept replying “no.” I could tell she was growing frustrated, and in retrospect, I was probably dismissive. I had done this hike several evenings by myself, and it’s easy to let your imagination run wild; any sound that punctures the silent void can take on a life of its own. Our back and forth went on for a bit before I returned to my important work of photographing cats (actually, by that time it was getting darker so I moved on to the torii gates farther down the mountain).
Not particularly keen on waiting around for me, Sarah headed back to our Airbnb, with the plan that we’d go get some “Sleepy Time Ramen” in 30 minutes. After screwing around for a bit at the lower circuit of torii gates, I headed back up the steps.
When I approached where Sarah heard the “snoring” before, I stopped dead in my tracks. I heard it too, except the quiet snoring had grown to a roar audible from a good distance. What I heard was unmistakably either the labored breathing of an asthmatic dragon or a deranged mutant killer monster tanuki. There was literally no other explanation as to what it could be. No other animal should sound like that.
Rather than turning around and sprinting in the opposite direction, I did what any curious idiot would do: I poked my head through the torii gates and laid eyes upon the monster: a gigantic wild boar. I had never seen a boar this huge, and it sounded as psychotic as it was large.
I scrambled to arm myself against the beast, making do by grabbing a large log and my tripod. I wasn’t sure what to do. I was a safe distance from the boar, which was not yet on the main path. I could’ve just walked backwards and left. The boar seemed to be minding its own business, grazing on the soil outside the torii gates.
Irrespective of the boar’s current status, I felt I should probably do something more. Unfortunately, Fushimi Inari isn’t staffed and I had no clue how to call the police. I could see things taking a turn for the worse if someone descended the steps too quickly without hearing the boar.
I plotted my next move for what felt like 10 minutes. At that point, a Japanese couple approached, and I warned them that there was a boar just off the trail. When I saw the look of horror in their eyes, I figured something had gotten lost in translation, and it had: they thought I said “bear.” I repeated myself, and when they realized I meant “boar,” this did nothing to allay their fears.
They immediately turned around, with the man saying “we must go now!” At this same time, two people from (I believe) Australia approached, and I stopped them with a warning about the boar. They seemed more flippant about it, but before they could really weigh whether to continue, the Japanese man saying, “no no, boars are very dangerous in Japan!” That settled that, and we all turned around and left as a group.
Upon returning home, I told Sarah about the boar, and she was both vindicated and extremely disappointed that she hadn’t seen it. We knew a boar had been spotted at one of the temples earlier in the month, which actually caused a nighttime illumination to be cancelled, so it was obviously a big deal. Upon doing more Google News searches, we discovered that Japanese boars had terrorized a school that same week and were generally wreaking havoc throughout Kyoto.
The next morning, we again returned to Fushimi Inari for one last visit to our favorite place in Kyoto (and to check in on our kitten friends) before heading out.
This visit was uneventful as compared to the previous night. It was a fitting and good way to end a great stay in Kyoto.
It’s also when the scope of the experience hit me: we had been in Japan long enough to experience the changing of seasons–if 7 years ago you told me we’d be doing something like this, I would’ve laughed at the utter impossibility of the idea. Our lives had changed dramatically in under 5 years, and this really drove that home. I’m sure a good writer could find some symbolism in leaving on a bullet train gliding through a fresh blanket of snow, but no one would dare mistake me for a good writer.
Check out All Installments of Our Japan Trip Report for more on what we’ve done. If you’re planning a visit, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also recommend the Lonely Planet Japan Guide to help plan.
Well…that’s a wrap…any thoughts on our experiences or ruminations about Japan? What would you have done if you encountered that boar at Fushimi Inari? Any suggestions for our future coverage of Kyoto, or the rest of Japan? Any questions or other comments? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!