Tonight, after eating dinner in my hotel room, Sam and I went out to explore the area around our hotel.

During this first week’s orientation period, we’re staying in the Kyoto Tower Hotel, a large and impressive hotel beneath the Kyoto Tower. On Friday night, after getting our bearings in Kyoto, all 31 of us AKP students will meet our host families and travel with them to their homes, beginning the next big step of this adventure. In the meantime, though, we have off-and-on moments of downtime, so Sam and I sought to use ours to get slightly lost and see a bit of the city.

View from inside Kyoto StationFirst, we crossed the street and went to Kyoto Station. Kyoto Station is truly an example of the sort of building I would not expect to find anywhere in America. To begin with, it’s huge. The building is about 11 stories tall, and spans probably the equivalent of at least three American city blocks. What’s more, it demonstrates the same indoor/outdoor blurring that I’ve seen in Tokyo (and certain parts of Los Angeles). There’s definitely an entryway, but it’s not a set of doors. There are stairs and escalators that lead all the way up and down the 11 stories, but it’s at least partially open-air; if it rained, there are definitely areas where you would get wet. There are areas that are fully enclosed–every floor has a shopping/restaurant deck, for instance, that is enclosed with four walls, a ceiling, and a floor, but the station’s main plaza, as it were, is partially exposed to the elements.

As my hotel roommate and I found out a couple days ago when we went looking for breakfast, Kyoto Station’s outdoor escalators go up quite a way. Sam and I counted six separate escalators, punctuated by at least nominal flat sections, that stretched up to the 11th story of the complex. At the top of the complex was a garden called the “Happy Terrace” and a great view of Kyoto, which I intended to show Sam, but when our final escalator deposited us at the Happy Terrace, we were more than a little surprised to discover that Kyoto Station was a very popular place to take a date. There were couples holding hands and kissing everywhere we looked.

Now, I had my own preconceptions of public displays of affection in Japanese culture–namely, that Japanese, as a rule, tended not to make them–so I was more than a little shocked to see such outward displays. As we explored the station more, we ran into more couples all over. By the end of the night, I was really questioning what I thought I knew about that part of Japanese culture.

As I told Sam, though, although I could probably have made it through life without witnessing so many people macking in public, it was really a profound cultural experience to witness so many couples at the 駅 (eki — “station”). Not because snogging’s a profound act, and not even because it challenged my preconceptions as described above, but simply because, after seeing so many couples, I recognized that I had seen where some–apparently many–young people in Kyoto liked to take their dates. At home, I know a handful of places that are nice enough or unique enough that people might go there on a date. Tonight, I found a similar place in Japan.

I might not be explaining it well. It was a strange feeling of recognition that dawned on me and instantly made the experience more meaningful. As weird as it seems, I think that seeing so many couples enjoying their time at the ? was really one of the most culturally important experiences I’ve had yet.Panorama of the Kyoto Station JR lines at night

Red paper lanterns outside a shrineAfter exploring Kyoto Station some more, Sam and I then took the long way back to our hotel. We passed rows and rows of covered bike parking–almost all of which were full–and a pedestrian tunnel with a ceiling so low that I almost scraped my head on the unusual stalactite-like formations that appeared to be forming from the concrete. We were meandering through a little residential neighborhood with a tight, winding street, passing the houses and businesses, when out of nowhere, I looked to my left and saw a Shinto shrine, its paper lanterns glowing an assuring crimson.

I had read about how Kyoto is a peculiar blend of old and new, but it didn’t hit me until I saw that shrine, a tiny monument to tranquility beset on either side by urban buildings. I didn’t take many pictures because I wasn’t sure if it was allowed (it is), but I’m sure I’ll return there or to another such shrine in the future.

There is so much to see here.