The last time I was in Kyoto was 2007 where I spent a year teaching English and was living in an apartment not much bigger than our tent. I was excited to return to see if the beautiful city remained as picture perfect as it did in my memory and to show it off to Suyin, who was just as excited as I was.
We had been looking forward to riding the 59kms between the two iconic cities, Osaka to Kyoto, and it looked to be a pretty easy, urban ride. However, a storm had other ideas. We saw the rain bucketing down from 7 am and delayed leaving as long as we could but at 9 am, and the rain with no signs of stopping, we buckled our helmets to pushed off. From that moment, to when we fell through our Airbnb door at 6 pm the rain didn’t stop.
The storm made the whole ride as dark as if it was 7 pm, with convenience store signage glowing off in the distance like tiny beacons of hope offering up $1 coffee, hot lemon tea and free internet. Unanimously we looked forward to stopping at almost every Lawson’s and 7/11 to try to keep us warm and motivated. We had become masters of crafting a half decent meal from a convenience store selection. Our latest creation was a cup of noodles, soft boiled eggs, a pack of seaweed salad and a side of edamame. (Yes, you can buy pre soft boiled eggs at convenience stores, it’s awesome.)
The rain saturated our gloves, our only piece of kit with no waterproofing which we had neglected to upgrade. Being too icy-cold to ditch the gloves and yet too wet for them to have any practical function was a dire situation. Drivers peered through their warm fogged-up cars, watching us wring cascading rain water out our gloves at every few sets of traffic lights. My hands were so numb I couldn’t squeeze the clasp hard enough to unbuckle my helmet, and Suyin had to help me.
With such a consistent heavy downfall even the best wet weather jackets and pants will have a limit. When your gear transforms from making you feel like a slick efficient seal to an absorbing sea sponge it makes for just a bit of a challenging ride.
At this point, I should probably mention that we could have avoided this entire day by taking a 40-minute train ride! But where would the fun have been in that.
Photos of riding along the sparkling waters of the Uji River taking in the sights was supposed to fill this blog post about my first visit to Kyoto in 9 years. We ended up taking only one photo from the whole day, a single out of focus finale photo of myself, in front of Kyoto tower, smiling through a probable mild case of hypothermia.
The light at the end of the day was a beautiful Airbnb which meant no camping or sleeping in internet cafes for an entire week. Suyin almost fell off her bike, as her legs had gone numb, and we stripped off layers and layers of wet gear, creating puddles everywhere in our little studio apartment.
When the sun finally decided to show itself two days later we set out to explore the once capital of Japan, a place only surpassed by Rome for the number of UNESCO world heritage sites. We were a little too early for cherry blossoms but it did not matter, there was so much to see in Kyoto.
When we hit the streets of Gion we were greeted with scenes of people everywhere wearing traditional Kimonos & Yukatas. It’s really popular to dress up when visiting Kyoto, there are quite a few places that you can rent Kimonos or Yukatas, with hair and makeup, for the day.
Between temple hopping we caught up with Jono and Laina again, who had smartly taken the 40min train ride from Osaka, to sample the food and cold beer.
We even met up with some of my old work colleagues from my teacher days and treated to a lesson on how to make Takoyaki (fried octopus balls) from scratch.
Kyoto holds several “light up” festivals throughout the year which open up the best temples and all the backstreets and shops on show at night. With only one night left before getting back on the bikes, we took the opportunity to meet up with an old friend Simon and his wife Yoshie to see the temple gardens and bamboo groves. It was Kyoto at it’s finest.
Returning after all these years I was unsure as to what I would find, and even if I wanted to know, but Kyoto was largely the same place, apart from a new Owl cafe here and there. Even my old apartment block, with its tiny studio apartment I lived in, stood just as the day I left it.
When travelling to a place that was founded in 794 you realise that rampant change sometimes only lightly touches a place, and is not always the norm. I was glad to see Kyoto be largely the same as when I left, and hopefully for many years to come. Knowing this made me content to leave my old home once again and to carry on east towards our next big-ticket item – Fuji San (Mount Fuji).