Lessons of Loneliness: Kyoto

From Osaka, I went to Nara for a day, taking the slowest and most wandering train I’ve ever been on. Locals using the train to get from their job to their home in some small town watched me carefully, wearing their curiosity on their faces. While in Nara I explored shrines and temples very quietly, watching where I stepped and sneaking in on a couple English-speaking tour groups at times.

Kyoto was next on my destinations, the last destination before returning to Tokyo for departure. I don’t recall the train ride to Kyoto, but I recall the train station being very large, a central hub as a result of most transportation in Kyoto being undertaken by bus.

Kyoto is where I learned to walk and ignore stares. On the first day, I went to two temples, one being the very famous kinkakuji—the golden temple. While there, I found myself behind some tour groups once again, and I took full advantage of eaves-dropping on the history of the place. I remember very little of the lesson now, of course, I was too busy enjoying the sights and smell of nature after the stale smells of the train to Kyoto had gotten into my nose and my brain.

On the following day, I decided to simply walk around one market area I had seen, and I did so until I found a massive movie theatre, and the new Studio Ghibli film, Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises) was playing. I immediately went inside, ordered a ticket, and sat amongst a massive crowd. There were—obviously—no subtitles, and yet I found myself understanding the majority of the content, between the love story and the engineer’s career I followed, laughing and crying with the rest of the audience.

At this point in time, I had learned a lesson about loneliness that involved me embracing it as a freedom, independence. Loneliness no longer meant no safety net—I still had people who loved and cared about me—but rather I had no one but myself with whom to battle fears and anxieties, and through each turn of every street and covered market area, I found myself embracing not only independence, but a curiosity that forwent fear and upheld new experiences as the new desirable.

I had become comfortable. My time in Kyoto I remember as a blur amongst my wanderings, and it was not long before I was on a bus (that took two hours, no kidding) to my one planned stay at a fancy hotel. The hotel was supposed to be a modern take on a ryokan (traditional inn), and I wasn’t sure what to expect outside the fact that they’d have onsen (hot springs) and a meal provided. Once I arrived, however, I was blown away. Taking off my shoes and putting them in my locker, I chose a yukata that would fit me, and went up to my room.

I had scheduled dinner for a very specific time, as the staff had to be prepared to serve what turned out to be the most elaborate meal I’ve ever had. They served me tempura, soba, cooked fish and crab, and so many things I couldn’t name. On multiple occasions, I had to ask my server how exactly to eat the objects presented to me and she, not knowing much English, struggled to explain, both of us dissolving into awkward giggles at miscommunications.

I stumbled upstairs to bed, where I planned to change into my yukata and head downstairs to the onsen for a luxury experience—one last time in the baths. I’ll admit I was fairly afraid at this time about the stares, but more so about perturbing the people who had come to enjoy a relaxing vacation with my foreignness. I sat on the bed, yukata in hand, and 14 hours later I woke up, phone ringing wildly.

I answered and was reminded that I had scheduled my breakfast for this hour—I was late!

I never had a chance to go to the onsen at that hotel—something I truly regret not overcoming, but the sleep was much-needed and, I think, well-deserved.

Outside, I waited for the bus to return to my stop. It was well over 100 degrees (Fahrenheit), and the sweat trickled down my brow, my spirits slowly bludgeoned into submission by the incessant heat. An older man came and sat next to me, waiting as well for a bus. He didn’t speak any English and I was much too shy to try my Japanese—as I have been most of my life.

After a few minutes of silent smiling glances towards one another, I turned and watched as he went over to a nearby vending machine, put money inside, each coin clinking into whatever abyss coins go into when they’re put in vending machines, and punched buttons. He returned to his seat, and turned to me, holding out a red bean ice cream pop in rough paper packaging. I took it, smiling and thanking him.

He tore his open as I warily opened mine—I hate red bean flavored things, but I didn’t want to be rude—and slowly gnawed on the treat. There we sat, in the blazing Japanese summer sun, sharing not only a dessert, but a moment.

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