Hi Japan Travel Blog | Chapter 3

r.j. kushner
5 min readMar 14, 2024

Our first morning in Kyoto we got on a tourbus and met our guide, who told us to call him Josh. He distributed little machines and headphones to everyone and said he’d be communicating to us through them. The scary thing is I’ve started to hear Josh in my head even without the earphones.

Kyoto is a smaller city compared with Tokyo and there is a lot of history and nature. We drove to a famous aristocratic family’s former country residence, Kinkaku-ji Temple, which is made of pure gold. Yes, sure, but is it in a walkable neighborhood?

Our group followed Josh’s blue tour guide flag to the entrance of the property. “Don’t use the toilet here,” Josh said quietly in the headphones. “There will be a toilet inside if you cannot be patient.”

Josh said we were lucky that it was what is known as a “shiny day” in Kyoto, with plenty of sun in which to admire the golden pavilion. He also said we couldn’t bring ice cream on the bus or the bus driver would scream.

From there we traveled to Arashiyama, which has a bamboo forest. There was a fountain with three satisfied looking frog statues in it and people were throwing coins into a divot in the center. The guy before me got a bullseye to much applause. I missed by a large margin and the audience was pretty quiet. Would have preferred boos.

We ate yuba udon noodles at a vegetarian restaurant. I checked my phone at the table for Oscar updates and accidentally yelled, “Oppenheimer won!” which I realize now may be an insensitive thing to suddenly exclaim without context.

After lunch, back to the bus for another temple, Kiyomizu-dera Temple, the biggest one yet. We climbed a steep, crowded hill filled with shops to get to it.

The temple had a shrine with three stone “pipes” that trickled water straight out from the mountain. Josh said you were supposed to pick one of the streams and make a wish, then drink the water and wash your hands in it. One of the streams wished for a happy love life, one was for long life and one was for academic success.

We waited in line for around 15 minutes and when we got to the spot realized the streams weren’t marked which was which. My only hope is that I didn’t end up wishing for academic success. I feel I’m the type who’d see little consolation in dying young and loveless but finding out I passed algebra II.

Dinner was held at a wedding venue, and afterword a big group walked 20 minutes or so to a street with a bunch of bars. It was chilly but great to see the city at night. The streets were so clean that you could probably eat off them if you were some kind of weirdo and into that kind of thing.

We walked a little further than the rest of the group and accidentally ended up in the geisha district. It was filled with impeccably dressed bouncers, who stood in front of the clubs with angry faces and small cigarettes in the corners of their mouths.

At one point, a random drunk man put his arm around me and said, “You’re cool.” He walked away before I had time to tell him the truth.

We turned around and stopped in a karaoke bar. I had one beer and Nhi told me to sing “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” and, unfortunately, I did.

When we left the bartender clapped and sang into the microphone, “Seeeee youuu tomorrowwwwwww.”

It rained all the next morning so we walked to a big shopping mall next door to our hotel. I bought three sweaters and tried on exactly two porkpie hats. This country is changing me.

We took two trains to another noodle place for lunch, then walked to Kyoto Shinkyogoku Shopping Street, huge market that’s sort of half inside, half outside. There were four stores dedicated entirely to gum ball machines. We tried one and won a little Princess Peach car. Not bad. We also bought chopsticks.

Later, a friend asked if I wanted to place my bare feet in a tank full of fish that would eat my dead skin. Anywhere else I would have considered this a description of one of Dante’s levels of hell. I don’t even take my socks off in my apartment. But here, with a belly full of udon and a Princess Peach toy in my pocket, I said “yes.”

The chalkboard sign outside claimed this experience was “relaxing,” but I have never been more stressed in my life. I was instructed to take my shoes off then walked to a raised platform with a bamboo mat and wiped my bare feet with a sanitary napkin. Then I rolled up my jeans, sat down and slowly lowered my feet into a narrow tank as the employee started a timer for 10 minutes.

My hands, teeth and butt cheeks shut like a car door as tiny fish swarmed to my pale offerings. If they were little needles poking me I think it would have been less intimidating, but something about the fish having brains and making such choices made me squirm.

The people next to us sat serenely taking it all in. I held my head and winced like a man getting stitches. The fish congregated mostly around my ankles. A lot of the fish were pretty into it (not to brag). But the few times I glanced down, I could tell some were just going through the motions.

I managed to last all 10 minutes and when time was up I was given a towel and dried off my feet. The staff all came out and bowed and thanked us. I thanked them back and walked away to eat ramen, about ready to kiss the dry, fishless streets of Kyoto.

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r.j. kushner

Dubbed by the New York Times as “all out of free articles this month.”