The Kansai Episode: The Dying Bell and the Barfly

You’re waiting for a train, a train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but you don’t know for sure. But it doesn’t matter.

As a rail enthusiast, it has always been a dream of mine to ride the Shinkansen. The Japanese service may not boast the fastest services, but their ingenuity, penchant for design and comfort have inspired the modern high-speed rail’s aspirations to compete with the sky (at least on routes less than 800 kilometres). Unlike the obscenely affordable, faster Chinese equivalents, the Shinkansen has been classically more realistically priced, making inter-city travel a more financially daunting task for a limited budget traveler such as myself. I was afforded a once in a lifetime chance to ride the Shinkansen this time, for a one-way fare to Kyoto was a deal snatching JPY 1,380 or SGD 20.60 for what was supposed to be a fifteen minute journey. Conscious of my travel partner’s wearying low cash solution, I had to cast aside my dream for a more cheaper, more complex and lengthy solution: the Kansai Thru Pass.

The pass afforded us free access on all Kansai region’s non-JR controlled lines bar the fastest Rapid Express service where additional fees would be applicable. Even with the fastest, our commute would take three to six times longer than the nonstop high-speed service offered on the Shinkansen – a situation which my travel partner most unwillingly resigned to. So, we boarded the Kintetsu Nara Line’s Express commuter service from Osaka Namba for Kintetsu Nara, then changed at Yamato-Saidaiji for the Kintetsu Kyoto Line Limited Express service for Kyoto station.

Impeccable breakfast set from some doughnut cafe in Osaka. The doughnut’s extra, and it too, is amazing.

We take the Kintetsu Nara Line Express service  from Osaka Namba.

We transfer at Yamato-Saidaiji for the Kintetsu Kyoto Line Limited Express service.

Forward facing seats! Notice the black and white handles of transparent umbrellas at the bottom of the picture? They were for my colleagues, Adibah and Seow Wei. I lost once en route. Sad.

Just passing by…

Approaching Kyoto station. Note the Shinkansen tracks in the background.

A train at Kyoto station resembling our ride here.

Kyoto station is quite the spectacular. Refurbished and rejuvenated a few years ago, the station complex is modern and contemporary – a just contradiction to the city’s historic roots. The design however, is not out-of-place and is certainly not there to attract attention. Rather, it blends and camouflages amongst the urban landscape – proud, but discreetly respectful to the city’s heritage. The daring use of textured and matte blacks really gives the JR part of the station a stylish classic look. The Kintetsu portion of the station however, does not pay that much of attention – looking generally in good condition but nevertheless somewhat dated, although the station’s generally smaller footprint, and the fact that the JR station engulfs it at all sides means that there’s little loss of communication.

It seemed like all of Japan was in Kyoto today. The station’s Tourist Information Centre was plastered with hordes of domestic tourists desperately seeking a compass to orient themselves to the city’s seemingly complex bus route network, and the minimal but practically useless subway network. We sought information ourselves too, for the hostel I booked was not, like so many of the sights, sounds, and accommodation, near a subway station.

Kyoto is walkable. It’s not exactly a real easy stroll in the park, but it’s doable, in the sense that it’s a small-sized, pancake flat city. Alternatively, renting a bike is easily available out of hotels, hostels and inns alike. Most visitors however, will seek out the city’s bus lines – intricate, comprehensive, circuitous, and with recorded bilingual announcements, it is for the most part, simple and convenient. Perhaps the biggest upset might be the constant traffic congestion – the struggling city’s infrastructure might not be relics but the city’s thoroughfares are still as wide as they were when automobiles weren’t invented yet. Throughout our stay, we couldn’t decide if the buses were fairly indeed frequent, or whether its due to bunching.

Our first night in Kyoto would be spent at Hostel Mundo, a machiya in the Horikawa district. With an enthusiastic owner passionate and always ready to go the extra mile to make one feel comfortable in her city, along with her Taiwanese male assistant and her human friendly dog, it’s a very heartwarming experience despite the house’s traditional yet spartan decor and central yet not entirely convenient location.

The hostel’s soft touches made up, in my opinion, for all of the more rustic atmosphere, but in the yes of my travel partner, such heart was nothing compared to modern creature comforts of his own hotel room. He deserved such luxury, he believed, and with such conviction. He viewed his private domain to be the key to unlocking access to the city’s gay community – he had Grindr, he possessed some intermediate understanding and reading of the language, he could do it, he thought. Sharing was the anti-thesis of opportunity, communal facilities a loss of anonymity. Such is the affliction of his suffering that it blinded him, and me to some extent, to this rare glimpse of an often unseen world.

Inside the machiya overlooking the void from the second floor.

As we made our way back into the main road to kick-start our sightsee of Japan’s ancient capital, we stop by an eye-catching Western themed but not quite locale for lunch. There was an underlying overhanging American theme  with posters (essentially just pin-up ads) harking back to the rock and roll era, from Harley to Red Wings and Wrangler. Juxtaposing all that were furniture that recalls the ski lodge cabins of the Swiss Alps, and that’s not even the end of the contradictions. The menu, like the jarring alien interior, was in the face of it all, a cute pastel colored photo album. It was like being in a Japanese anime – we were even rightfully positioned: at the corner, a part yet apart from the rest of the locals. There was even the quintessential strider – tanned, well-traveled bearing the scars of past conquests, and dressed in a fashion that can only be described as stereotypically touristic and laughable if he were overseas, with a cigarette in his mouth, he told stories of great, dramatic adventures from unfamiliar lands to eager ears. He makes conversation with the two elephants in the room – a likely stunt to add to all his dramatized theatricality.

“Hello, where are you from?”

“Singapore”

And without any interest, he turns back to his ready audience, no doubt to embark on another adventure in an exotic land. I pay him no attention once lunch’s served. It’s a simple curry, but in the cool early winter’s chill, the boisterous flavors embrace the body in a comforting warmth. I miss the great curry houses of Kanto – I felt at home, and at ease there. Here, not so much.

Note the “traveler”.

Lunch. See the piping hot steam?

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