I finally left the house Saturday morning for what was supposed to be a 15 hour excursion to Nara, the ancient capitol of Japan.
Instead, I returned 33 hours later weary, wary and much more learned about the Japanese transit system.
Two of our good friends from college, Forrest Meggers and Georgette Stern and their 1-year-old daughter Luzi, happened to be visiting Nara this past weekend. The married couple currently live in Singapore and for the last 7 years they were in Switzerland. For those 7 years I promised Lisa we would visit F&G in Zurich, but it never happened. Now that they were a 3 hour train ride away,
I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to see them, and their adorable sire.
Lisa wanted to come as well, but her grandfather is suffering from cancer, and she wanted to see him while she could. He lives near Okayama, which is a little bit further down the train line. So we boarded the shinkansen together Saturday morning. I got off in Kyoto, and Lisa gave me a snack, some cash, a peck on the cheek and she sent me on my merry way.
My solo journey started off well enough. I found the train to Nara without fail. It wasn’t nearly as comfortable as the shinkansen (bullet train), but it got me where I needed to go. I arrived in Nara at 11:30 am with some time to kill.
F&G said they wouldn’t be able to meet me until sometime after lunch. Not knowing how long this would be, I grabbed a bite to eat at a French cafe at the station and then ventured off on my own.
Nara was the capitol of Japan from 710 until 784. There are several temples from the era still standing, including the Todaiji Temple, which houses a gigantic Buddha statue, completed in 752, that measures nearly 15 meters high.
Figuring I would wait to see the Buddha until F&G arrived, I first went to the Kofukuji Temple, a 5-story pagoda nearest to the train station. The pagoda was impressive, as was the octagonal hall close by.
Lisa had told me about how revered the deer were in Nara, but until I witnessed the reverence firsthand, I didn’t pay it much mind. But apparently the deer are considered heavenly creatures, and they are everywhere in Nara. Japanese kids feed them and have their pictures taken with them, and then run away from them when the deer come for more food.
These deer were just smaller, scragglier versions of the white-tailed deer I used to hit with my car back in Iowa (or in most cases, the deer would ran into the car).
So anyway, after checking out the first sights, I headed south to some of the less traveled streets of Nara, just to check them out.
I came across the Sarusawa-ike Pond at the entrance of Nara Park. This was a pretty little pond with dozens of painted turtles and carp swimming around. It was a great place to take a break, and to use the restroom facilities, or so I thought.
This is where everything started to go wrong.
The toilets in the stalls of the public restroom were the traditional Japanese squatters. In that they were nothing but a ceramic hole in the ground. Now, in my significant years of Boy Scout training, I have shat over many a log, and I thought I could handle this.
But I didn’t. I ended up with the toes of my sneakers braced agains the wall and I leaned against my hands, planted on the flimsy wall of the stall. At one point I almost fell over. It probably sounded like one of the deer got locked in the bathroom stall.
After this very uncomfortable and unfortunate incident, I returned to the 5-story pagoda to see if Forrest and Georgette might be anywhere nearby.
They weren’t, and I hadn’t received any messages on my cell phone. We had made all previous arrangements via facebook, so I decided to check my facebook messages with my phone. Sure enough, Forrest left a message. None of his texts had gone through. But they were still at lunch and wouldn’t be able to meet me in Nara until 3.
With an hour to kill I found a bar and sat tight.
At 10 til, I went to Nara station to meet them. Forrest said they would arrive at the main station. Well, they didn’t. I stood outside the station turnstiles for 10 minutes until Forrest finally called.
“Where are you,” I asked?
“At the station,” he said.
“No you aren’t.”
“I see a cone-shaped fountain with lots of Japanese people,” he said.
Luckily during my earlier wanderings, I had come across this fountain. It was outside Kintetsu Nara Station, not the JR Nara Station, where I was.
It was only a 10-minute walk away, so at 3:20, I finally met up with my long lost friends.
Our first stop was at the Matsumae Ryokan, where F&G got checked in and unloaded luggage. Our next stop was back to the 5-story pagoda. Our third stop was the Kasuga-Taisha Temple, one of the oldest and largest shrines in Japan.
Our fourth stop was to get lost. We found ourselves on some street on the other side of Nara Park, because somehow we missed our turn and just kept walking and walking.
Thankfully, F&G are real troopers and didn’t bitch once, even though I was the guy with the map. And even better, they stopped listening to my directions and led us back through the south end of Nara Park, which turned out to be quite beautiful.
Finally, we were on our way to Todaiji Temple to see the giant Buddha.
It was getting darker as we walked to the temple, and as we drew nearer, we noticed the vendors packing up their wares and the crowd was disbursing.
“Looks like we got here just at the right time,” said Georgette.
Yep, we got there just after the temple closed.
Surprisingly, we weren’t that disheartened. After all, we were really there to see each other and to catch up, of which we did plenty.
So we stopped for some green tea ice cream and had dinner and beers at a okonomiyaki restaurant.
According to my google transit search from earlier, I needed be be at the JR Nara Station by 8:02 pm to take the train to Kyoto in order to make the final shinkansen to Tokyo.
This information was false. I arrived at the station at 7:50, but the next train to Kyoto wasn’t until 8:18.
I wasn’t worried at this point, because the train ride I took to Nara that morning was only 50 minutes long, and the last shinkansen didn’t leave until 9:34. I had plenty of time.
Except one mistake compounded another. I didn’t realize the 8:18 train was the local train, that made every single fucking stop.
I needed to be on the rapid train.
The train chugged along, and I was self-assured, for about 45 minutes. At 9 o’clock, the GPS map on my iPhone showed that I was a little over halfway there. That didn’t seem right. I should have been a lot closer to Kyoto.
I texted Lisa – “Starting to get nervous.”
“What stop are you at?” she responded.
“You will arrive at Kyoto at 9:34 exactly. You are fucked.”
She didn’t actually write “You are fucked.” What she wrote is, “Well, it sounds like you will miss shinkansen if last one is 9:34.”
But there was still faith inside me. After all, back in Philadelphia I took the train to work every day, and it always left at least 2-3 minutes late. But I knew this wasn’t the case in Japan. The shinkansen is notorious for leaving exactly on time.
So I was set to arrive in Kyoto at 9:34, and the shinkansen was to leave at 9:34. I figured I had about a 30 second window.
It was a window I missed.
As the doors to the train opened, I leaped onto the platform and sprinted down the first stairway I found. Amazingly, this was the right staircase, and it took me directly to the shinkansen entrance. I bounded up the escalator, and as I horizoned over the top steps, I saw the shinkansen speeding by.
My heart sank.
I was stranded in Kyoto.
I found a ticket agent just to be sure. Usually when delivering bad news, the Japanese are known to hem and haw and avoid giving a direct answer. However, this ticket agent didn’t beat around the bush.
“Nope, that was the last train,” he said (thankfully he spoke English). “The next train to Tokyo is at 6:14 am.”
I googled “Kyoto hostel” on my iPhone. Of course my battery was running in the red. The directions were confusing. Plus, I didn’t bring my passport with me, so chances were they wouldn’t let me rent a room.
I finally called Lisa, who was notably disappointed, but helpful as always. She told me to call Forrest and go back to Nara, which is what I did. Forrest was able to book the room directly across the hall from his, and the innkeep was kind enough to let me in, even though I arrived well past the 10:30 curfew.
Lisa later told me she was expecting me to call her at 9:34 on the dot, to tell her that I missed the train. She started to get concerned with the delay.
“I thought you might have passed out at the station,” she told me.
She wasn’t that far off.
Once again, I accidentally took the local train back to Nara instead of the rapid train. It was 11:30 when I got there. Forrest met me at the station with a beer in hand and led me to the ryokan. The room was only $75, and it was very comfortable. I bathed and went to bed. We had a traditional Japanese breakfast in the morning and met a nice couple (he was French, she was German) who also recently moved to Tokyo.
Afterwards, F&G&L and I finally made our way to see the Daibutsu, also known as the giant Buddha statue. It was cool.
It was after 1 pm by the time we got back to the Nara train station. We all rode together to Kyoto (on the rapid train) where we said our goodbyes.
I knew where the shinkansen platform was, and the train arrived every 15 minutes. Plenty of time.
I boarded the shinkansen, and I felt bad for the guy I was sitting next to, since it had been 2 days since I last brushed my teeth or put on deodorant.
I arrived in Tokyo at 5, and still had two more trains to take. The first one was easy, since nearly all trains go to Shinjuku. That’s where it got a little tricky. At Shinjuku I switch to the Keio line to go home to Sasazuka. Even Lisa has trouble remembering what train to take.
I gave her a call to see if she could help, but she didn’t answer. Which was actually for the better. I had made it this far, I was intent on making it home without assistance.
I boarded the train, and one stop later I was at Sasazuka, and after a 5-minute walk, I was home in our apartment.
In the end, everything worked out for the best, even though I nearly had a heart attack on the Kyoto station platform that Saturday night.
I was able to spend more time with Forrest, Georgette and Luzi, three of the most wonderful people in the world. I got to see the infamous Buddha statue. And I learned a valuable lesson about Japanese transportation.
In the end, I am much wiser and even feel more confident stepping out in the streets of Tokyo. Why, just today I went to the post office and delivered a letter all by myself.
We’re getting there, one day, one train, at a time.