'Eternal Summer' is a series of articles about the promise and reality of Japan, home of aesthetic. Each article is accompanied by a specially compiled playlist which you can listen to while reading.
If you’re anything like me, the only Vega and Altair you know are characters in Street Fighter and Assassin’s Creed, respectively. Years ago, in the midst of one of our favourite adventures, I learned of another legendary pair that shares these names.
This was our third day in Kyoto, and we got up early enough for our ryokans traditional breakfast: white rice, a slice of fish, egg, miso soup, red beans, and various pickled vegetables. If you are going to spend any time in the old capital, I highly suggest staying in a ryokan.
Ryokans are traditional inns, typically with few rooms, and pride themselves on their hospitality. We stayed at Ryokan Shimizu, a modestly priced and very welcoming spot, with a great location near both the train station and plenty of city action. Our favourite amenity was the bicycle rental; for about $7 USD you could use one of their bikes all day. An easy choice and we rented bikes every day of our stay.
We took our bikes down to Kyoto Station to check with the visitor’s centre about booking a tour to Nara. We parked our bikes next to the other fifty or so bikes right outside. There are no racks, but the majority of bikes we saw had these rear-wheel locks (situated right by the back brake) that are ring-shaped, where you use a lever to close the ring around the back wheel. Simple and efficient; why would I expect anything less? After setting up a tour, we did a bit of window shopping in the station and headed out.
Our bicycles were gone.
Everyone’s bicycles were gone.
On the wall near where we parked (posted at a low level, and previously blocked by everyone’s bicycles) was a sign with a map and a bunch of text. Mind you, we couldn’t read any of it, so we headed back inside to the visitor centre to ask what happened. We were told that today was Star Festival / Tanabata, and there was no bike parking due to a holiday, resulting in them all being impounded!
As legend goes, the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (represented by the stars Vega and Altair) were lovers separated by the Milky Way, allowed to meet only once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month (though various celebrations happen during both July and August). Today just happened to be July 7th.
So, we now had to figure out how to retrieve our rented bikes. The staff at the visitor centre suggested we check around the station - if they were still impounding bikes, maybe they’d pull ours off of the truck for us. We did find a flatbed with a crew taking bikes, but sadly ours were not there. Remember that cool, convenient wheel lock? It also means they can just pick up everyone’s bikes and throw them right on the trucks! The driver did help us out with the map, at least, so we were on our way.
We had to take the train all the way to its final stop, and then walk twenty minutes or so along the river to reach the impound lot. Halfway into our walk, it started pouring rain. We didn’t have our umbrellas, and the salaryman that walked past us didn’t have his, either. He noticed us as he was rushing, holding his newspaper over his head. He paused long enough to smile at us, joking as he said “nice sunny day!”
The rain was short-lived, and the hot sun dried our clothes as we reached the impound lot. Neatly organized into numbered rows were possibly thousands of bikes! Around $50 and some messy translation later, we had our rentals and began to navigate back to the city. What took minutes by train ended up taking a good hour at least, but this bike ride through residential/suburban Kyoto is something we never would have planned, and could never replace. On our way back, we actually ended up at a little shop that had those ring bike locks for sale, though we still need new bikes to put them onto!
Once we returned to the city proper, we visited Sanjū-san Gendo, which houses 1,001 statues of the goddess Kannon (whose name had inspired a certain camera company). It was among my favourite temples we visited during our trip (we were averaging two every three days), and every time we’d enter one I couldn’t help but feel humbled and awestruck that we were walking paths that had been walked by many thousands of visitors, our feet moving across the same ancient wood that had been there for generations. You can truly feel the energy of these places.
After a quick bite at McDonald’s (we enjoy seeing the local differences, such as the game-changing “Milk Tea McFlurry), we hit up a number of shops we’d previously noticed on Teramachi-dori (Bamboo-ism for some handmade etched bamboo chopsticks, and Ippodo for some tea) and headed back to the ryokan to drop off our haul.
Every time we’d return to the inn, within minutes one of the hosts would knock on the door, with cups of ice-cold oolong tea for both of us. This “welcome tea” as they called it was definitely welcome on these hot, muggy July days. We relaxed for a bit before heading out for dinner.
When we travel, we get some loose ideas of things we want to do but fill in the blanks by venturing away from what we’d consider traditional/touristy stuff (though we did check out the expat “Irish pub” in Gion the night before!). We find that this often results in the most interesting stories and experiences, so I highly suggest it.
For dinner, we ended up at Curry House CoCo, which we both loved. You simply select by size and spice level and add optional toppings. Once again - simple and efficient. We actually, on a later vacation, found they had a location in Honolulu, so we hit that nostalgia button on the first night of that trip! The remainder of the evening we spent wandering around the streets of Kyoto, stopping anywhere that caught our eye.
Tanabata is cause for much celebration in Japan, and all the while we were cruising the dim evening streets, we could hear what we assumed were either groups or families, practising their drums, music, or chants. This effectively became the soundtrack of our night, and something truly magical we could never have anticipated. Similar to the feeling in the temples and shrines, hearing this old music performed in the present day, as we drove past vertically-stacked car garages, konbini, and Gion’s “massage parlours,” places you in an alternate timeline where the old is assimilated, reinterpreted, and reinserted in the new, giving you that feeling of desiderium or Saudade that you can’t quite figure out, but I’m definitely feeling right now as I finish up.
On this night, the seventh day of the seventh month, Vega and Altair were allowed to meet, a year of longing and desire between each of their encounters. We returned to the ryokan and closed another loop, locking up our rental bikes for the night.
Maki is Finance Manager over at Private Suite Media, and occasionally writes fiction and travel pieces (you can read his previous article about Tokyo here). Follow him on Twitter and help figure out what's going on in "Browser History!"