The cherry blossoms were just emerging, having kept themselves bundled tight for one extra week when the temperatures had dropped into the high 30s. The early evening breeze was crisp but up in the 50s when I stepped down to the sidewalk that traced Shichijo-dori. My shoulders were free from backpacks for the first time during my entire trip. It made me feel free and somewhat nude in those first moments. I was dressed up a little bit in my slacks and a long sleeve button-up that had somehow avoided getting crushed in my luggage. I was looking to spend the evening at two bars that were rumored to have reasonable whisky selections.
For just this final night in Kyoto, I was staying at an apartment facing Higashi Hongan-ji, one of the largest wooden buildings on the planet. Anticipating a tremendous view from the balcony, I instead found the massive Buddhist temple encased in an even larger gray construction shell as refurbishment continued within. I followed Karasuma-dori north, with the temple gates on my left and the sakura newly flowering on my right.
Every footfall landed in pain. I had walked over one-hundred miles during the previous five days, wearing shoes that were likely not appropriate for such travel. They were slip-ons, certainly necessary for shrine and temple visits, with an insert supporting my heel and sole. But none of that was designed for the distance I had covered, the hills I'd climbed, the forests I'd explored. By the second night, the stabbing pain had spread from my lower back up into my skull and way down, stiffening my Achilles tendons. On the third afternoon, the jabbing melted into a constant burn. Each night when I returned to my previous residence, an old cold beautiful two room house, I would collapse onto the wooden floor, lying flat, my mid-back muscles spasming, causing my breath to exit my lungs involuntarily. I had to pull my legs to my chest to gasp the air back in. There were few liquid nightcaps because all I wanted was to be unconscious until the nine-month old infant in the room upstairs cried or the three chickens outside my window argued at dawn. This was my seventh day in Japan, fifth day of pain. By this point my mind went elsewhere when the nerve-endings began to fire.
When I was younger, I used to have great profound thoughts as I wandered cities alone. Grand cinematic forms, sweeping climactic moments for heartbreaking novels, questions about eternity and consciousness. But now I wondered, how long would I walk before I had to pee? Had I dressed warmly enough? Where were the garbage cans in this city?
That’s when I saw the blue heron standing at the temple’s south gate. It tilted back and forth on its twiggy legs, gauging each passerby that impossibly never saw it. It didn't seem real, more like an invention by one of those Japanese companies that build the creepy humanoid robots. But there, four feet away, it was real, showing little interest in me, instead watching everyone else. As a gust of chilly wind blew in from the North, I was reminded of the peacock that floated to the snowy ground in Amarcord. Yes, that’s a different continent, a different creature, and a different season. But it was a similar striking natural non-sequitur. Then the heron loped away, taking flight.
The next gate was guarded by five cats, all either snoozing or cleaning themselves. They drew a crowd, demanded cell phone photos, but really could not have seemed any less interested in the moment. The nearest calico cat looked up from his arm-licking with unhidden disgust at the nearest amateur photographer, then lifted a back leg and commenced in the focused scrubbing of his white undercarriage.
My path led to the cross street near the Karasuma subway station, and I took a right. Despite what many travel guides say, Kyoto is not an old city. Most of its architecture looks to be from the 1960s or 1970s with the occasional modern blocky structure. Once in a long while a building from another century appears, nestled amongst the new things, tight traffic creeping by. The city center seemingly holds nothing but opportunities for luxury shopping. As the night fell early, the gigantic department store signs, already lit, seemed to increase their voltage as the clouds above them turned purple, then navy blue.
Across the river, I searched Gion Shijo’s tiny streets for the one liquor store I couldn't previously find. After eight or nine laps I realized that it would elude me forever. By then night had tumbled fully and men in expensive suits were lingering in front of room-sized restaurants smoking cigarettes and mumbling into cell phones. Small red lamps dimly lit the pavement that I was following back to the other side of the river. Along the way four different small pretty women asked me, “MA-ssage?” Goddess yes, massage. But likely a different massage than what you’re offering. So, no. Thank you.
The tendons behind my ankles had hardened into rocks, so I shuffled flatfooted across the bridge that overlooked the lovely Kamo-gawa and its walking paths. On the other side, Ponto-cho was a little louder, decorated with more tourists and spotlighted cherry blossoms. Despite this two-hour walk, the restaurants didn’t call to me. The broth-filled steamed pork dumplings that I had eaten earlier still powered me on, long after their calories had vaporized. Flashes of cell phone cameras blinked around every nearby pink tipped tree and the rare English word occasionally popped out of the din.
Maneuvering around the tourists, I kept to my quiet counting of streets. My map was rarely precise due to each little alleyway that counted itself a road. The bar I was looking for could be anywhere, on any floor, within a three-block radius, if it were here at all. Online, I had discovered a second location, in another part of town, where it could exist instead. But then, up ahead, I could see the sign, from two streets away. It was exactly where my analog street-counting said it should be. There was another bar I had originally intended to visit first. But this one, I didn’t know anything about this one. My first Kyoto whisky bar. My last night.