Traveler’s Poker

A story about my unplanned trip to Japan

If there is no one in a restaurant, it’s safe to assume that there are probably better places to eat. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but they are few and far between. 1 out of 1,000 empty restaurants may offer the best food in town. But right now, I am in one of the other 999. I’ve just lost a hand in a game of Traveler’s Poker.

I shouldn’t be too surprised that I’ve ended up in an empty restaurant called Lover’s Time in Kyoto, Japan. I’m losing this game of Travelers Poker because I played such a great hand just 5 hours earlier.

On this trip I have decided that I don’t want to plan things. I don’t have Lonely Planet’s guide to Kyoto in my pocket. I know of only a few attractions in a city with more World Heritage sites than any other place in the world. I’m here because I read a book two months earlier by a man I respect who said Kyoto was one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Spontaneous living, I guess. But spontaneity is inherently risky. Hence the name of this essay.

After visiting one crowded tourist attraction in the morning with my friend, I’m reassured that I don’t want this trip to be an exercise in box checking. That is, I don’t want my itinerary to look like Trip Advisor’s Top 10 Attractions in Kyoto.

I decide to take a train to a village just outside of the city in order to visit an Onsen: a traditional Japanese bathhouse. It’s cold and rainy and this sounds much better than being pushed and shoved by the hordes of tourists who, like me, have missed the Cherry Blossoms by a week.

As I sit on the train, whose tracks wind and bend through the quaint Japanese suburbs, I watch as normal people live their normal lives. An old Japanese man sitting next to me reads his book, the only difference from an American counterpart is the vertical alignment of the text. We make a stop next to an elementary school. A dozen children get on the train and fill the car with energy and the ocassional annoying scream. They wear Jansport backpacks, Nike shoes and white collared shirts.

The world is flat, I think to myself.

After two train changes and 90 minutes of peacefully watching these people go about their day, the last train reaches it’s final stop. I arrive at Kurama, and along with two other locals, I get off and walk towards the town. I show the man behind the ticket window a flyer for Karuma Onsen Hot Spring and try to communicate with my body that I am lost. Being lost is my new normal on this trip so this is easy.

My view from the train station

I start walking up the one lane road into the mountains but I get sidetracked. I see a temple to my left and decide to take a detour. This particular detour lasts an hour and a half. I expect the ancient temple to be only a few buildings and maybe an acre in size. But every building has a pathway at the back leading further up the mountain, each one more beautiful and remote than the last. I reach what I think must be the top and walk around the deck exterior of a restored building that dates 770 AD. As I look over the fog blanketing the mountains, a door behind me opens. Like a scene out of a movie, a Buddhist monk welcomes me into the building.

There’s something incredibly peaceful about being an alien limited to the phrases Hello and Thank you. I don’t realize it until that moment, but I have been meditating since my roommate and I parted ways earlier that day. I haven’t spoken to anyone in 6 hours. I am alone in my thoughts. And so I continue to meditate in that room overlooking the mountains with a monk as fascinated with me, as I am with him.

I bow in respect and continue my journey.

Minutes later I reach the top of the temple. I hold my umbrella awkwardly in between my neck and my shoulders as I try to take a photo of the scene. While I am able to snap a few shots, I accept that no camera in the world can capture this. In order to do so it would need to record the sound of that rain pattering on the rooftops. It would need to bottle the scent of incenses and cedar trees. And then it would need to somehow note all the emotions rushing through my blood.

On my way down Mount Karuma I check my phone and realize how late it is. I hurry down the pathway that I ascended so slowly hoping that the Onsen is still open. I quickly snap pictures of the one lane road that leads to the hot springs.

When I arrive I’m greeted by a middle aged Japanese woman who is trying to tell me something. I give her a puzzled look and say sorry with my words and my body. Then behind me I hear someone say, “What are you trying to do?” in perfect English. I turn around and see a white woman for the first time in hours.

“Um. Uhhhh. I… I’m trying to understand what she’s saying.”

“Take off your shoes, pay up at the counter and then put on these sandals and go to the changing room.”

“Oh. Cool! Thank you.” I turn around and smile at the Japanese woman and follow the now obvious seeming instructions.

It’s 9:30pm and I’m starving, jet-lagged and lost in Kyoto. The cobblestone streets and lantern-lined stone walls, in all their beauty are getting a bit redundant. I feel more like the characters in those Snickers commercials than someone who has just spent the day in a quant Japanese village and hot spring.

In a city with hundreds of incredible restaurants, I’m bound to find something good. That’s what I thought when I left the hotel with no plan at least. But right now, I can’t even figure out which buildings are restaurants and which ones are homes. Every door is closed. I know there are incredible restaurants behind these walls, but I’m an outsider with no windows to look in.

Finally, after fifteen minutes of walking in circles and not realizing it, I walk blindly into what seems like my best shot at a meal. I’m greeted by someone in the doorway, but can’t tell if there is anyone in the restaurant or even what it looks like. I follow her to my seat, sit down and realize my failure immediately. I look to my left. No one. I look to my right, no one.

The server comes up to me and asks for my order. I think about abandoning the depressing atmosphere, but I’m too tired to musk up the courage. Even if I did, I’d probably end up walking in circles and awkwardly end up in the doorway of Lover’s Time once more.

These are the realities of Travelers Poker. Sometimes a Japanese monk opens the wooden doors of an ancient temple. Other times, you end up with a plate of average tuna sashimi in a lonely restaurant. I’d have it no other way.

Like what you read? Give Michael Thomas a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.