Step two in learning to embrace public nudity – accept that your youth hostel has mixed dorms, and there’s no lock on the bathroom door. If this were a 12 step plan, I’d have some kind of chip by now, but I suspect step 12 would be walking down the street in my birthday suit. All I know is I went into the glass-fronted shower cubicle having shut the bathroom door, and when I came out it was wide open.
Other than this, my youth hostel in Kyoto is brilliant. On my first day I went to check out the Manga museum with two Australians I met at the hostel, following directions from the hostel owner Jinn. The place had exhibitions on the evolution of manga from newspaper comic strips; Mr Studio Ghibli Miyazaki’s vision of an ideal town in pictures; a visiting display of 3D models of female manga characters that bordered on the pornographic; a library of manga titles, and halls lined with 100 cartoons of maiko (apprentice geisha), drawn by famous manga artists. My interest was a little deeper than the Australians’, and we parted company early on.
I considered my dinner options, but realised I had no clue where any of the buses went, so gave up and went back to the hostel, where I discovered Jinn had made a huge curry for Troy’s birthday. I was delighted to receive a bowl of a vegetarian version, and six or seven of us sat around eating curry together. Troy arrived back very late, having been to a five hour long Noh performance, and proceeded to demonstrate the intolerable incomprehensibility and boringness of the noh, until we were falling about laughing.
Saturday I dedicated to checking out temples and shrines. I was dubious of becoming shrine-weary, having visited various shrines in Tokyo, Kamakura and Nagoya, but I was keen to check out Kinkakuji, known for its gold-covered pavilion overlooking a pond, and Ryoan-ji, with its traditional zen rock garden. On top of this, yen recommended I visit Fushimi-Inari, just out of town and famous for its torii-lined paths. Kinkakuji and Ryoan-ji were beautiful but crowded, so I made plans to head off for Fushimi-Inari. My afternoon unfolded something like this:
2:05pm – decide to leave Ryoan-ji and head for Fushimi-Inari
3:30pm – bus arrives at Kyoto station
3:40pm – board train to Nara to stop at Inari station
3:50pm – realise am on express train to Nara and have skipped over Inari station. Get off train and catch a local train back 5 stops. Overhear a French couple who have clearly done the same thing (“evidemment, je suis bête”).
4pm – arrive at Inari and head into shrine. Find start of torii-lined path and am delighted by the vermillion posts, the corridors of red and the glimpses of forest beyond. Late afternoon light is golden and makes the forest feel enchanted.
5pm – continue deeper into the forest of torii, finding small shrines dedicated to the fox, Inari, and small white cats wandering between the trees. Marvel at miniature torii and fox-head shaped prayer tablets.
5:30pm – realise I have been walking uphill for quite some time. Am hot and sweaty and wondering when the path will start heading downwards to lead me back to the start.
5:45pm – reach an observatory platform with views over Kyoto, and three torii lined paths leading away. Pick a path and continue walking.
6pm – notice that the light is becoming less golden and the forest more gloomy. Number of other visitors seems to have declined, and torii also seem to be thinning out.
6:15pm – enchanted forest seems to feel slightly sinister. A fox-shaped fountain drips water from the fox’s mouth, but the red of his bib refracted through the water makes it seem like blood. See an old woman sweeping a shrine, the first person I’ve seen in 10 minutes. Light is failing, begin to despair of ever escaping.
6:20pm – cats crying in the woods. Begin to have dark fantasies that the miniature torii and foxhead prayer tablets are scrawled with the last messages of visitors forever lost in the forest, and that cats are the wandering souls of the lost.
6:30pm – retrace steps and return to observatory in time for stunning sunset. Place is still full of people and am heartened, but still desperate to find exit. Thoroughly sick of the sight of red torii everywhere. Overhear an English couple talking and walk in the same direction as them.
6:45pm – finally pluck up courage to talk to English couple and find out if they are as lost as I. Discover they are Jish and Lucy, from London and Wales respectively. Dark fears recede as we work on finding an exit together.
6:55pm – have been walking in the forest for three hours, up and down steps, and legs are starting to shake uncontrollably. Jish and Lucy do not have accommodation for the night, so suggest they check out my hostel.
7pm – escape shrine by retracing steps to start. Conclude Fushimi-Inari is not the loop shape I had assumed it was…
My torii nightmare over, I caught the train back to Kyoto with Jish and Lucy, and took them back to Sandal Wood, where fortune was smiling and Jinn had two beds left for the night. Jish and Lucy were massively grateful for saving them from the street, and I didn’t want to explain that they had saved me from losing my mind in the forest. Troy has rented some ghastly B movie called Replicant on DVD and we all sit around drinking beer and laughing at the ridiculous acting.
On my way to bed I see Jumi, the other member of staff at the hostel, and recount my nightmare for her amusement. I tell her that I’m off to dress up as a geisha the next day, and she tells me she’s done it before and it’s fun, and says if she’s up in time she’d love to come with me and take photos with her digital SLR. Suddenly I feel much better about my geisha experience, with the prospect of having somebody to share it with.