Going Korean in Kyoto

If you’ve dreamed of visiting Japan, you’ve likely dreamed of Kyoto, the capital of the country before Tokyo and home to geisha culture. Every guide says, “If you can only visit one place in Japan, make it Kyoto.”  My expectations were high.

As per usual, Lynn and I got lost trying to find our hotel.

“We’re going to walk past the cigarette man again!” Lynn said with a visible cringe.

We had asked the cigarette seller, who stood in a shop the size of a phone booth, for directions.

“But he doesn’t speak English, so it’s his fault we’re still lost.” I said.  His lack of English hadn’t stopped him from pointing us in several different directions.

“At least there’s a sign for Murumachi, so we know we’re on the right street, but is that Nichikikoji, or Takoyokushi?” I asked, pointing toward a cross street, which had no sign.  I had not memorized these names; I was reading them—stammering them—from a piece of sweaty, crumpled paper in the mid-day heat and humidity.

Lynn crossed the narrow street to a store and asked a young woman on a bicycle who looked like a local if she knew where the Koiyama Guesthouse was.  The woman conferred with the shopkeeper, who had stepped outside.  Then they nodded and the young woman took off on her bicycle, looking at buildings as she glided by, with the two of us trotting behind with our suitcases.

We proceeded two blocks, then she shook her head and turned around and headed in the opposite direction.

“Fifth pass past the cigarette man,” Lynn noted.

We dragged ours bags back the two blocks we’d covered, then another block beyond, then back to where we’d started, where the two women suddenly exclaimed, “There, there!”  The guest house was directly across the street from where we’d started.  It had a curtain hanging over the entrance with a different but similar name.

“That’s it?” asked Lynn, “You’re sure?”  They nodded vigorously.  “Thank you so much for going to all that trouble!” Lynn said.  “Really, it’s remarkable how friendly and helpful everyone is.  If a Londoner saw a tourist coming toward him, he’d run the other way.”

The guest house was brand spanking new—whatever that means.  It was compact and included a kitchen with sink, microwave, and burners, plus a washing machine and drying rack.  This would save loads of time (no pun intended) since the heat was so intense we would need to wash clothes daily.

“Why is there a big hole in the duvet cover?” Lynn wondered.  I would see this twice more on my trip, and I don’t know the answer.

Lynn had insisted on transporting the whiskey bottle in her bag and now I got her to relinquish it.  “That sucker is heavy!” I said as I stuffed it into my bag.

Soon we were back outside, trying to find our way to the covered market.  “More to the point, we need to be able to find our way back,” Lynn said.

Nishiki Market covers many city blocks and is a collection of stalls, vending machines, and stores featuring everything from deep-fried starlings on a stick to vending machine hamburgers.

I was embarrassed by this “U.S.”-style shop.  There would be no actual guns for sale here, but plenty of faux guns, army fatigues, and machismo on offer.

Of course there was a Peruvian pan piper.

Shirst with nonsensicle or misspelled englesh words and phrasses were all the rage.

The place was decorated with pugnacious pig posters.

My dumplings came immediately while Lynn waited 20 minutes.  The waitress brought a half-full mug of beer and ice and a bottle of something she indicated I should add at my peril. “Soju, soju,” she repeated and pointed.  Was that Japanese—or Chinese—for Happy Beer?

It turned out to be a Korean rice spirit that tasted similar to vodka. Bracing and refreshing, and a good thing it was watered down with lots of ice.

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