Saturday, May 24, 2014

Six Days in Kyoto

A friend of mine who was travelling to continental Europe for the first time recently asked me for advice on how to plan her trip, specifically, whether to cover lots of cities, or visit fewer cities but spend more time in each. As someone who likes to travel but is perenially constrained by holiday and budget limitations, this is a problem to which I have devoted much thought. And my musings have led me to come up with the Urban Travel Enjoyment Curve (UTEC).

The exact shape of the curve depends on a number of factors including personal preferences, the city in question, and the expense of travelling to and living in the city, but the form of the curve (for me, and – I believe – for most people) is something like this:


If, for instance, I misguidedly planned a trip to Paris where I would only get to spend 30 minutes in the city, my enjoyment would actually be negative. The time, money and effort expended in travelling to Paris and back would outweigh any enjoyment I might derive from my 30-minute visit. So for small values of t, UTEC lies below the t axis, i.e. enjoyment is negative.

At a slightly higher value of t, perhaps around 30 hours, UTEC intersects the t axis. This is the point where I would be indifferent between going and not going for the trip.

Initially, each unit of time spent in the city produces increased enjoyment, and the rate of increase is positive (i.e. UTEC is convex downward). Then it reaches an inflection point, after which enjoyment still increases but the rate of increase is negative (i.e. UTEC is concave downward). Finally, after I have had my fill of the city, my enjoyment peaks and then goes downhill because of mounting hotel costs, foregone opportunities to visit other places, and so on.

If only we had a formula for each city's UTEC, trip-planning would be reduced to a simple optimisation problem. Since we don't, we have to rely on guesswork, which means UTEC – like most things on this blog – is mildly interesting but ultimately useless.

One trip where I got my planning absolutely spot-on was in the summer of 2011, when I was living and working in Tokyo.

For the six-day Golden Week holiday, I toyed with the idea of visiting several cities, but eventually I decided to spend all six days in Kyoto. Kyoto has dozens of wonderful things to see and neighbourhoods to explore. Besides, it would be ironic to do a whirlwind tour of, of all things, Zen temples and rock gardens built for contemplation.

With the luxury of six full days at my disposal, I took in the sights at a leisurely pace, spoke to many people I met, and slept in parks when I tired of walking. Some of my nicest memories are of places I would probably have left out of a tighter itinerary. Here are three such stories.

A Chance Encounter

For reasons not entirely clear to me, Japanese visitors to Kyoto sometimes like to dress up as geishas and stroll around Minami Higashiyama.


Many photos of "geishas" taken by foreign tourists are in fact of tourists in costume; real geisha are elusive and few.

But late one evening in Gion, returning to my hostel after dinner, I unexpectedly saw a real geisha. We crossed each other in a narrow alley; I hadn't noticed her until she was five feet away. It seemed disrespectful to take a photo, and in any case, I was too awestruck to do anything.

Friends have asked me how I knew she was a real geisha. There was something about her walk, her poise and the way she wore her clothes; I saw her and Knew.

Philosophy and Tortoises

My favourite walk in Kyoto is Tetsugaku no Michi (Philosopher's Path), a pedestrian path along a cherry-tree-lined canal. The path goes past temples, shrines and back-gardens, and is named after a Zen philosopher who used it for daily meditation.

It was a pleasant walk, but more than that, it was fun because I found myself ascribing philosophical implications to the most mundane things I saw or heard: the overheard conversations of other walkers, a spider ensnaring a butterfly, a swimming tortoise.

Actually I might have missed the tortoise, if not for the two Japanese guys who were observing it with interest.


The tortoise was trying to swim across the canal but the current impeded it, and though it had nearly made it to the other bank, the little guy was evidently at the end of its strength. One time it clamped its jaws onto a reed, but the reed broke off and was swept away with the current. Finally, after a supreme effort, the tortoise safely reached the bank. The Japanese guys looked at me delightedly and said, "Yokatta!" Which means something like "(S)he did it!"

The Cutest Thing I Ever Saw

Shimogamo Jinja is not as spectacular or historically significant as some other shrines in Kyoto, but I wanted to visit it because behind the shrine lies a sacred grove known as Tadasu no Mori (the Forest Where Lies Cannot Be Concealed). Not surprisingly, it is a popular spot for settling disputes and for first dates.

But I had an unexpected treat in store. There was some kind of competition going on, and the courtyard in front of the shrine was filled with young kendo trainees.


Scores of toddlers wearing balloons on their helmets and bashing each other over the head with sticks – if there is a cuter sight than that, I am yet to see it.

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