We had just walked up the hill to our ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn in Kyoto, when I realized we’d left our trusty umbrellas behind at the restaurant in town. I debated whether to even go get them, considering the distance I’d have to hoof it and the fact that they’d set us back a mere couple bucks when I bought them at our hotel in Tokyo.
But they’d been good to us, those cheap umbrellas, and I didn’t relish the idea of having to hunt down a new set in the morning. Wet season in Japan meant we never knew what kind of weather the next day would bring — driving rain, persistent mist, or blue skies and serious heat, all partnered up with a heavy humidity that weighed down our clothes and caused Simone’s hair to frizz in all kinds of interesting ways. No, we’d need those umbrellas.
Plus, with Simone safe in the hotel, a late-night jaunt through Kyoto sounded lovely.
Because that’s pretty much my favorite thing when traveling (other than eating, of course) — whether it’s a drunken, 2 a.m. ramble in Budapest with my best pal, a solo street food experience through the Night Market in Hong Kong, an unexpected midnight kiss in south London after we’d closed the pub where we’d met, a crazy New Year’s Eve BART ride out of San Francisco, or a 4 a.m. breakfast in a shitty 24-hour diner in New Orleans, exploring a city at night inspires me.
The cobblestone streets of Kyoto were still shiny from the day’s rainstorms, puddles here and there reflecting the lanterns in front of bars — sounds of laughter, shouting, and that unmistakable clink of a glass being set down with just a little too much enthusiasm leaking through the curtained doorways. I passed a middle-aged couple, swaying slightly as they staggered down the narrow road, arms over shoulders, the man slurring something sloppy and the woman giggling. A few well-dressed younger guys were perched outside another bar, smoking silently, and they peered at me as I breezed by. I’d learned long ago that you’re less likely to be bothered if you walk with a purpose, as if you belong there and know where you’re going. It works well just about anywhere, though less-so in the souk in Tel Aviv, or the textile market in Marrakech.
Late night is when you get a look at the real life of a big city. In Hong Kong, I could swear the streets were busier after 10pm than they were during the day. Nighttime is when a city sparkles with potential — for adventure, for transformative dining experiences, for trouble. It’s when you find yourself drinking with the locals, telling stories to the bartender, or getting the scoop on what is absolutely not to be missed.
It’s also when the magical stuff can happen. After I’d retrieved our umbrellas, I decided to walk back by way of one of the many awe-inspiring temples that make Kyoto such a wonder. I didn’t realize a festival was in the works that night, and as I squeezed my way through the throngs who were on the temple grounds to leave offerings and watch the monks with their gongs and drums, I considered running back to the ryokan and rousting Simone to take it all in.
But I knew she was done for the day, probably already in the big bamboo bathtub by then, or texting her friends, who were just waking up back home. So I stopped for a few moments to enjoy the festivities, breathing in the scent of incense that wafted through the temple compound, and then dropped a coin in front of the shrine of a smiling buddha, quietly voicing the intention of love and prosperity, before directing my aching legs back to the inn.
Simone gets it, too.
Given the choice between getting off her tired feet back at the hotel, or riding the subway a few extra stops in order to wander amid the bustle and kinetic energy of Tokyo, all bright lights and crowded intersections, Simone always chose the latter. Wait in line for the best ramen in Shinjuku? Only if we could also walk by the spots where scenes from her favorite anime took place. Ready to head back to Shibuya station? Not yet, because Simone found a bookstore with two full floors of manga for her to investigate, and the place doesn’t close until midnight.
And then it would be just the two of us, up and out of the Tsujiki subway exit to the dark streets of Higashi-Ginza, stopping by the convenience store to pick out a can of draft sake (for me) and some sort of glutinous dessert (for her), the invigorating effects of the city’s night energy giving us the boost we needed before collapsing in the hotel.
I’ve found myself in potentially compromising or moderately dangerous situations in my midnight rambles through foreign cities, but for the most part I’ve been able to steer clear of the worst parts of town (except maybe that one night, in Madrid, when one of my buddies made the bad decision of leading us into what we thought was a bar, but wasn’t. The realization, the quick exit, and the attempt to lose a couple of pimp thugs via trash-strewn alleyways and public transportation became a good story to tell). But that’s part of the allure when I travel; the romance of late nights on the move.
Our big summer adventure to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Yokohama changed our lives in significant ways. Not only did it solidify Simone’s yen (ha) for travel to foreign lands, but we were immersed in a way of life and a culture that gave us lots to think about after we returned home. Our 13 days of traveling together also brought us closer, with stories to tell and inside jokes, shared memories, and love for a stunningly beautiful, magical country. I won’t be surprised if Simone ends up living in Japan someday. She’s already talking about it.
I’m mostly happy to be home again after so much time away (Ann Arbor, Helena, Japan, Israel), in the new house, with a daunting amount of unpacking and organization to handle. But with summer starting to make its exit, I think I need a few more late night adventures, even if they’re just with local buddies, stirring up trouble in our city.