Lost in Time

Kyoto, Japan

June 28, 2009

Some pleasant discoveries were made, not by getting there, but by getting lost. The irony was that my Japanese host’s rusty sense of direction got me exactly where I had envisioned myself to be in Kyoto.

Kimono Korner: Teapot Lane in Kyoto

We had just left Kiyomizu Temple, our last UNESCO World Heritage Site visit for the day (there are 17 such sites in Kyoto, by the way). It was quite late; my Japanese companions were in a huddle, presumably planning where to go next. I was hoping it involved dinner and a jigger or two of sake. I just left them to their own devices, language barrier to blame. Then, they started down Chawan-zaka. I trailed behind.

Chawan-zaka, literally Teapot Lane, was an uphill road leading to Kiyomizu Temple. Hardly a pilgrim’s path, it was a bustling commercial street that cut through an old-world area of wooden traditional restaurants and inns – and pottery and porcelain shops that gave it its name.

Colorful Delicacies @ Chawan-zaka, Kyoto
Hello Kitty, Hello Kyoto! @ Chawan-zaka, Kyoto
Rickshaw on Teapot Lane (Chawan-zaka)

We walked down the lane, past the obligatory Hello Kitty shop and a rickshaw terminal. I had no clue where we were headed, but I didn’t mind as I was too busy clicking away. The street was a throwback to old Kyoto that you conjured up in your mind. The unsightly electric posts and cables, plus the ubiquitous vending machines that the Japanese could not seem to live without, may ruin the effect, but the ambiance was still decidedly nostalgic.

The group eventually took a right at a corner to a narrow pedestrian alley. Dusk was almost upon us; street lamps had been lit up and on these side streets the crowds at Chawan-zaka were conspicuously absent. We found ourselves the only ones pounding the stone pavement. Soft light, light breeze, and stillness – these subtle elements heightened my senses.

An Anachronistic Vending Machine in Kyoto
Light Up the Dusk @ Kyoto

Quaint wooden houses were packed together in dense blocks. The area reminded me of the hutong village in Beijing and Crisologo Street in Vigan, Philippines. I imagined the dwellers here to be merchants, artisans, and innkeepers whose livelihood was sustained by the nearby Kodaiji and Kiyomizu temples. Although there were hardly any people at the time, there were telltale signs that the houses were lived in: A lady suddenly emerged from a house, a door left ajar, a bicycle abandoned by the curb.

Bike in the Alley: Around Chawan-zaka (Teapot Lane) in Kyoto
Beckoning Door in Kyoto

There were no street signs and there was no one to ask. But I reckoned these streets were Ishibei-zaka and Sannen-zaka, regarded as two of the most beautiful streets in Kyoto. These stone-paved alleys were lined with Kyoto-style houses, known as machiya (literally, “town house”), made of unpainted wood and hardened clay. They were mostly two-story affairs with a shop selling anything from kimono fabric and ceramic crafts to tea and sweets. Their facade and front doors were usually designed with unpainted wooden latticework. Others, though, were varnished with an ocher hue. Upper floors may be residential as evidenced by pet cats purring contentedly atop earthen eaves. Slightly open doors revealed courtyards and gardensSmaller alleys formed right-of-way capillaries within the dense blocks. Indeed, this part of town looked like any Asian hamlet, except for undeniably Japanese delicate touches, such as paper umbrellas and sliding doors.

Umbrella ella ella. A machiya @ Kyoto
Lighted Door of a Machiya @ Kyoto
Clothes Shop in a Machiya @ Kyoto

I could envision this residential area to be a bustling community with a strong collectivist spirit. The parallel lines of door and window bars, as well as shingles on eaves, formed a harmonious linear whole, manifesting the value of harmony in this culture.

Alas, the streets were largely empty and the shops closed when I was there. I felt as if I were in a film set than an actual neighborhood. This unexpected solitude conveyed how much of an anachronism such communities had become in this day and age. Modern living did not lend itself to streetside socializing at the end of a beautiful summer day. These machiya dwellers were probably online by then. Actually, many of these machiya had been converted into ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn where guests could experience old Kyoto living. I supposed the end of June, officially rainy season in Japan, was a dead season for innkeepers.

A Glimpse of Geisha? @ Kyoto

Memories of the old charm of Kyoto could still be relived on Chawan-zaka, Sannen-zaka, and Ishibei-zaka. Just walking on these sloping lanes was a time-capsule cultural experience, no matter how brief. I never bothered to ask my hosts where they intended to go, but I didn’t mind getting lost and even my grumbling tummy. More than any Japanese dinner I craved for, this promenade to the past had sustained my soul. All I missed was seeing a geisha.

Walking to the Past in Kyoto
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44 thoughts on “Lost in Time

    1. If you mean it’s hard financially – well, it depends. You can always use budget airlines and hostels (they call it “ryokan”) to bring down costs. If you mean getting a visa – yes, it can be hard. You might be required to present an invitation letter from someone in Japan or proof of your gazillions in the bank. 😀

  1. as an avid anime watcher, somehow this post of kyoto has brought alive all the magic that were all simply graphic portrayals. the pictures are superb and my wish of having a friend see and shoot kimono clad women have come to be reality.

    the fusion of explanation and snippets of history reels momentary glimpses of a world i long to see.

    1. Thanks Erich! Actually I wasn’t lucky enough to see – and snap a photo of – a real kimono-clad geisha. Those in the pix are just girls in yukata, cotton version of the formal silk kimono. But they say if you walk around that vicinity long enough, you’d bump into one. *sigh* Yet one more reason to go back to Kyoto!

  2. Hello AJ,

    I found your blog through Networked Blogs and I must say your adventures in traveling are what caught my fancy…I especially like your feature here on Kyoto. I teach English online and most of my students are Japanese. I only get glimpses of their country from the descriptions they tell me during class. Seeing your photos brought these words to life. From what I’ve gathered about Kyoto, it’s the center of history of Japan. At least now, through your pictures, I was able to give life to my imagination.

    Thank you too for visiting my blog and for your kind words. You have no idea how it has inspired me to continue with Project 365. Keeping up with blog entries daily is not easy but when people like you tell me that I’m on the right track, I get that extra push to continue.

    Your blog will be my virtual tour of the world…well, at least for the meantime that it’s not financially viable for me to see it for myself. “Beam me up, AJ! Where to next?”

  3. “Some pleasant discoveries are made, not by getting there, but by getting lost.” so true, na antig agad ako sa 1st line plng.
    kelan naman kaya ako makarating ng Japan, hayst! I;m dying to see Japanese girls in yukata, sa movies ko lng kase yan napapanood.

    1. @Madama Dita: IKR! 🙂

      @PSB: Can’t wait to see Japan through your amazing eye for photography. I suggest though that you go there in autumn or winter. That will add more drama to your awesome photos.

  4. I have always thought of Japan as a cold place. literally and figuratively. but looking at those houses, I donno pero it gives me a homey feeling. walking down a residential street is just a way to go if you want to know the heart and soul of a place.

    1. Maybe because the Japanese are known to be stoic and their warmth is a bit tempered by politeness. But I stayed with a Japanese family and they were genuinely hospitable, definitely not cold.

    1. OMG, how could you have skipped Kyoto? It’s an unforgivable sin of omission! At least, you have a reason to go back to Japan. 🙂

    1. No, it isn’t just you, Patricia. There’s really a Zen vibe there, especially in Kyoto. Even in their bustling cities like Tokyo, there’s a sense of tranquility that washes over. Oh, your sis would go crazy in JP then. Hello Kitty is all over the place! 🙂

    1. @Novie: You’ll never regret going to Japan. Go lang ng go!

      @Elal: Exactly the impression I had. I felt like I was a character in a quiet Japanese film, half-expecting a stealthy ninja to appear around a street corner. 😀

  5. felt like i’ve been in Kyoto, Japan with your well written post! i have been in Japan 5 times but never been around Kyoto. looks like it is worth a visit! so you still have the writer’s block? i hope you can start to juice out the inspiration. glad you are participating in the com ex at least to get started. i will read your latest post after this.

    1. @Athena: Thanks lots!

      @Atty. Mheanne: Yes, next time you visit Kyoto, explore the small streets around Kiyomizu. No need for a map. Just walk aimlessly. It’d be a beautiful and tender experience, I assure you. 🙂
      Yup, finally vanquished (vanquished talaga, hehe) my 3-month long blogger’s block. It’s the longest break I had in updating this blog. I just posted a new entry about SG.

  6. I honestly thought I was reading a pocketbook while reading your post. I like the way you write. =)

    So, did you ever get a shot of sake after your trail? =)

    1. Awww you really are sweet, Sweetik! 🙂 Yes, I did get my sake fix that evening. It gave a warm kick that ushered me back to the present after that trip back in time in Kyoto.

    1. Violy, that’s a misconception. Take it from me. I’m poor as a rat, but I made it to Japan and back. It’s only expensive if you’d stay in a multi-star hotel, take taxis all the time, and eat at mall restos. But if you’d go for backpackers inn, take the bus and train, and have local food in neighborhood restos, it wouldn’t be any more expensive than, say, SG.

  7. Ng moments ka sa Kyoto!!! hihihi!
    The vending machines ruined the effect!
    but still you got a glimpse of a Geisha!
    I’m very curious about Japanese culture,
    being a proud race!
    There colors stand out, and some of there traditions are something we always see but often disregard. 🙂

    1. @Enzo: Old cities ARE interesting! There’s a similar heritage town in Thailand, right? I forget the name.

      @F.Balgos: Moment kung moment! The vending machines…yeah anachronistic much but it’s such a ubiquitous sight in JP, it wouldn’t be JP if they’re not around. 🙂

    1. @Mark: It was almost dusk. This part of Kyoto was quiet and still; it was as if nothing moved except for a zephyr.

      @Jhoveleen: Yes, the standard of living is pretty high, but it’s not always prohibitively expensive for visitors. Be slow in judging a country by its reputation. 🙂

  8. “useless” guide =), no street signs and no one to ask for directions, how did you ever manage to navigate this foreign place? but i like the old world charm and i don’t mind getting lost when your surrounding is as beautiful

    visiting via FBW

    1. Hi RC! Well, my guide actually did me a favor by not knowing where to go. I’d rather walk aimlessly than run to the next item in the itinerary. 🙂 How did I navigate the place? Just follow where your eyes lead you. If you have no destination, anywhere you end up in IS your destination. 😀

  9. finally napuntahan ko na tong area na to.just came from osaka and kyoto.kelangan ko lang i check kung yung nasa pictures mo ay yun nga yung mga nakita ko.hahaha,ganun ako gaya gaya.nagkaligaw ligaw din ako tapos umuulan pa.pero maganda talaga maligaw dun kasi andaming pwede makita. i ended up at a cemetery pa nga on my way to kiyomizu.

    1. Wow, so glad I inspired someone to get lost here. 😀 Really, this place was made to get lost in, right? Not only one’s way, but also time. You can lose track of time and get lost in time. But you put one over me – I didn’t get lost enough to end up at the cemetery. I wouldn’t wanted to see that, especially at dusk.

  10. After all the readings I had of your blogs, it is only now that I found out that you have on Japan. It does not matter what it is on, as long as it is on Japan. I am not sure why I became interested in learning about the country. Perhaps it’s the food I learned to love since I was a little girl, plus the friend I got to meet in 2nd Year high school; she taught me a few origami patterns and got to love the art since. My sister even gave me an origami book on Christmas a few years ago which I get to share with my boys. Then, Jerry, got relatives from his father’s side who have Japanese-blood, and they either live in or have visited Japan. That is one of the things we like to do some day, visit Japan.
    Thank you Kuya for sharing your interesting experience. 🙂 Btw, I like the falling snow on the site.

    1. Wow, you have an affinity with all things Jap! I pray you get to visit the amazing country. They’ve relaxed their visa requirements and many LCCs fly there now, so it’s not anymore an impossible dream to go to Japan. Go for it, Lil Sis!

      Btw, the falling snowflakes follow the movement of the cursor. Try moving it around. 🙂

  11. Thanks Kuya. I hope we’ll get to go someday. Jerry is working on our trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico to see his Mom. She’s been sick, and our whole family is eager to see her. But one day, here we come Japan! 🙂

    1. That’s great! I heard there’s a vibrant art scene in New Mexico. And of course, awesome desert landscape. Do share your photos and stories too, Lil Sis!

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