In step with an Occidental tourist

Strolling: An American woman enjoys Kyoto's shops, temples and parks - even if the places she ends up seeing aren't what she set out to discover.

January 17, 2001|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KYOTO - There are many ways a tourist can learn the geography of a foreign city: taking guided walking tours or tour buses that circle the city or even hiring a stretch limo with a native-speaking driver, to name a few. But the best approach to learning one's way around a strange city requires no planning, costs nothing and comes quite naturally to most people: The tourist should get lost.

The lost tourist, unlike someone looking out the window of a tour bus, is forced to read street names and to check out those names on a map. The lost tourist will look around, will notice things that, if unlost, she would not have noticed. The lost tourist will find herself on streets where tour guides and tour buses never go. And it is the lost tourist who, through trial and error, through circling back to the same street and passing more than once through the same square, will solve piece by piece the geographic puzzle of a strange city.

At least that is the opinion of one American tourist in Kyoto - we shall call her Madame-san - who finds herself lost on the narrow side streets of eastern Kyoto. For an hour she has been wandering about in the Gion district, stopping at various shops to ask for directions to her destination: the Sannen-zaka Slope - a steep, winding street of old wooden houses and traditional pottery shops and restaurants near Kiyomizu Temple.

Although many travelers to Kyoto, the fifth-largest city in Japan, might be put off by the language barrier, Madame-san is not one of them. After more than two weeks in Kyoto, the American woman, always a quick study, has picked up on the profusion of phrases adapted from English words (usually based on how they sound in English) that recently have infiltrated the Japanese language. Why, just the other night after happii awaa (happy hour), she had ordered for dinner haabu-roosutochikin (herb-roasted chicken).

Getting directions

Right now, Madame-san is explaining to a postman on his route that she's taken the sabuuei (subway) from dauntaun (downtown) and is trying to find Sannen-zaka Slope. The postman nods, then points to the right, making a curving motion. Thrilled by her ability to communicate her needs, Madame-san bows and takes her leave. Confidently, she walks to the intersection and turns right, only to find a cobbled street divided by a small river, with lovely traditional wooden houses on either side.

Clearly it is not what she is searching for. Kiyomizu Temple, she knows, is a very large temple located at the top of a sizable hill with many small winding streets leading up to it. The American woman looks at her map, searching for the name of the street. She cannot find it. But she does locate a small river named the Shirikawa that seems to be in the right vicinity. She looks around. Although not what she set out to visit, this street, the one she is lost on, is as charming as any she's seen in Kyoto.

Trees, some still green, hang low over the water. A small breeze sets their leaves in motion; the sun filters the dancing patterns onto the elegant wooden facades of houses lining the opposite bank. Enchanted, Madame-san stands perfectly still, listening to the sound of water flowing over rocks and lapping against the stone walls separating the houses from the river's banks. It's as though she's gone back in time and suddenly been set down in old Kyoto.

Why, just last night Madame-san had talked to a historian who told her that it was in Kyoto - which was founded more than 1,200 years ago - that the culture and crafts we now consider typically Japanese were developed and refined. He also told her that old Kyoto was rapidly vanishing; that the historic wooden houses, such as the ones she had just stumbled upon, were being torn down at an alarming rate. Madame-san, who fancies herself a student of architectural preservation, was appalled to hear that since 1978 as many as 100,000 of these elegant wooden townhouses, known as machiya, had been demolished - torn down to make room for tall apartment buildings and offices. Then, just as Madame-san is remembering all this, she is attacked without warning - well, almost attacked - by a flying phalanx of large white storks. They fly so close to her head that she can feel the stream of air created by their strong flapping wings. The American woman struggles to get her camera in position as they fly over the water but forgets it is attached to her neck.

Suddenly, a voice says: "Good luck sign. Good luck sign." Madame-san turns and sees an elderly Japanese man straddling his bicycle, pointing at the storks. "Good luck sign," he says again. Alas, before Madame-san can question him as to the precise meaning of this remark, the old man rides off. Watching him, a thought occurs to her; she writes it down in her notebook: "Must do research on why so many elderly Japanese men bear an uncanny resemblance to Alan Greenspan."

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