Hoi An, Vietnam, 2014; Bali, Indonesia, 2010 and Japan, November 2015
I am, not by choice, a morning person when traveling to Asia. In fact, during a trip to Vietnam two years ago, I bonded with a rooster. While not actually hanging out with the rooster, I did, from the balcony of my Hoi An hotel room, watch it scurry and strut around a large rubbish pile in its spacious concrete enclosure every morning. A social guy, he roused his buddies around 5:20 a.m. and these other roosters would answer him in a delayed chorus.
My fowl friend even answered to human concocted cock-a-doodle-doos. This cockerel connection developed, because I was, to my knowledge, the only soul faithfully awake and up with this rooster. No matter how late I went to bed or what type of sleep aid I took, I woke up without fail at 4:30 a.m. every day in Vietnam. It had been the same way on a trip to Bali. A raucous rooster, which often sounded like it was perched atop my suitcase, kept me company, or at least its call did, in the early a.m. as I sat in our Ubud hotel courtyard while my family of heavy sleepers slumbered away.
Although not even close to being a natural morning person in the US, I actually appreciated that early dawning time in Vietnam and Bali. Once, I even arose before the rooster routine in Hoi An. I went out on the balcony and sat down on the tiles, which still felt somewhat cool in the already humid air. Palm fronds rustled and even brushed against my shoulder. It was Zennish. While the rooster and I would wake up before the rest of Hoi An, it wouldn’t be long until plastic flip flops thwacked along the pavement below, a radio played high-pitched Vietnamese elevator music and motor scooters revved up along the side street below. Vietnam was waking up. Early. Good Morning, indeed.
This was not the case, however, during my most recent trip to Asia — Japan, specifically. Apparently, people who live in the Land of the Rising Sun don’t necessarily want to get up with it — at least in the cities. Although I did not expect to experience rooster encounters in the middle of Tokyo, I certainly thought the notoriously workaholic residents would be up and running in the early hours of the day.
The Japanese urbanites, I discovered, are not morning people — not like Southeast Asians, who, of course, need to make use of the cooler part of their day. Normally, I would be excited to be among fellow night owls. In fact, I’m slightly bitter about the unfair advantage morning people had in the US, because they were the only ones awake at sunrise to set society’s agenda. Meanwhile we night owls were still sleeping. In Japan, the night owls were working late and set the agenda while the few morning people had already gone to bed.
Eleanor Warnock, an American journalist and self-proclaimed morning person, writes in an expat blog for The Wall Street Journal that the culture shock of the Tokyo timetable and acclimating to it was one of the most challenging aspects of moving to Japan.
“Living overseas means getting used to that city’s timetable – when people get to work and schedule meetings, when stores are open. In Washington [DC], friends squeezed in workouts, blowouts and coffee before work. In Tokyo, people have set their internal clocks a little later.”
Consequently, the early Japanese risers would have had plenty of time to plan the country’s timetable since the mornings feel unusually long in Japan. Our first day in Kyoto, while Suzanne, my sister, slept, I gazed over the wooden rooftops out our hotel window at 5:30 a.m. Off in the distance, close to one of Kyoto’s tiered pagodas, sat a slightly hunched yet pristine white Buddha statue. Appearing to be right next to each other, the Bowing Buddha and pagoda looked like massive Asian chess pieces although metal fences, rooftop landings, telephone lines and satellite dishes obscured their full view. In the muted morning light, the Buddha, even in the distance and through a pane of glass, exuded a calming presence. It was a reassuring sensation — the same as I had experienced with the roosters when I lazed on the balcony in Hoi An or lounged next to the courtyard fountain at my hotel in Bali.
While reassured, I also felt sleep deprived. Getting coffee was my primary goal. When Suz and I headed out at 7 a.m that first day, the streets were quiet —except for some of the morning minority who swept the sidewalks in front of their unopened shops. A lone businessman trudged down the street across the way. It was uncertain whether he was going to work or headed home after an all-night rager.
At first, we thought perhaps it was a holiday. With their corrugated metal doors shut tight, all the local cafes and shops around our hotel in the Higashiyama district were closed. A few days earlier, in our Tokyo stomping grounds, we encountered this phenomenon with Pronto, a local coffee shop that did not open until well after 8:30 a.m. (we kept checking). However, at the time, Suz and I thought perhaps the owners had an espresso machine malfunction or something along those lines that prevented Pronto from opening at a respectably early hour. Since a McDonald’s, with predictably decent coffee, was across the street, we got our coffee fix there instead.
In Kyoto, we resorted to the closest Circle K — the convenient store found in nearly every corner of Asia. There we hit up the delightfully oxymoronly named Fast Relax Café station with its digitized coffee maker that was only slightly easier to figure out than the complex computerized commodes in Japan. Because the Fast Relax servings were tiny — Dixie Cup tiny — Suz and I purchased two each and essentially downed them before we left Circle K.
“I still need more coffee,” Suz said to me after taking off the lid to her Fast Relax insulated thimble cup to check on whether the contents were truly gone.
I nodded, yawing. With unavoidable exhaustion encroaching, I zoned out in the nearby candy aisle, wondering about the potential joy of eating a “Crunky” bar.
Suz, however, was on a mission. “I’m Googling: ‘Starbucks in Kyoto.’”
Initially when arriving in Japan, I wanted to stick to local coffee shops and not the big American chains that we can pop into or “drive-thru” at any time back in the US. However, the lack of attention devoted to mornings in Japan was making it difficult to do local. Ultimately, it really didn’t matter, anyway. We had already reached “regulars” status at the Asakusa McDonald’s in Tokyo and now we were hitting Fast Relax, where we could also indulge in pre-packaged spongelike pancakes or the French-Italian sounding Cherie Dolce Sweets that claimed to make you “happy and comfortable in your life.”
Suz found a list of Starbuckses and since nothing else was open, we ambled to the establishment located nearby in Gion, the main geisha district. Along the way, we passed Yasaka Shrine stationed right along the street. The only soul around was a street sweeper wielding a bulky broom with long, rough looking bristles.
The inviting tangerine orange and white shrine, showcasing pagoda like curls, bright green shutters and dragons perched on stone blocks near the top of the stairs seemed ready for worshippers — if they would just rise and shine.
Suz and I vowed to return once we had consumed sufficient latte levels. After we turned down a street across from Yasaka, and walked a block, the ever-familiar white streamlined font of Starbucks caught our attention like a hashtag does to a social media monger. Somewhat troubling, however, was that the door of the Starbucks remained secured. Nobody was coming out or going in. Perplexed, I went over to the window and tried nonchalantly peering in and surveying the scene. Baristas wiped down tables and darted around the shop. I stepped back from the glass and discovered the hours displayed in the corner of the window.
Kyoto’s Gion Starbucks did not open until 8 a.m. By 8 a.m. in the US, the average Starbucks has probably already frothed enough foam to fill a Japanese deep, cubed-shaped onsen bathtub. It was 7:50 a.m. when we stationed ourselves on the wooden steps outside. Another blonde gaijin (foreigner), who turned out to be Canadian, walked up to the door, tried to open it and then joined us on the steps. I never thought I’d actually be up early enough to wait to for Starbucks to open.
Perspective time again. The Japanese are not morning people, and really, they generally prefer to drink tea, which is understandable since it’s their national drink — if you don’t count sake in this equation.
Finally, the Starbucks opened and we requested the universally sized Venti and Grande lattes. Digging into her purse, Suz retrieved her Japan travel guide and grabbed a table. I chatted with the baristas who, understandably, all spoke English. Hungry, I also checked out the food display case, which featured an “American Waffle,” a “Cake Donut Plain,” which had been showered in sugar sprinkles, the puzzling “Coffee & Espresso Cake Stollen” and a sandwich with “Root Vegetables and Chicken.” Since it felt like at least noon, a sandwich sounded appropriate. Joining my sister to plot the day, I sipped my latte wondering exactly how I was ever going to synch my whacked out circadian rhythms to the Japanese schedule and last way into the evenings.
Despite searching for open coffee shops and missing some of the nighttime action, I actually began enjoying the mornings in Kyoto, which evolved into a routine: reflecting with the Bowing Buddha, strolling along deserted streets in the crisp autumn air, passing enchanting empty temples and greeting street sweepers.
Within this window of time, a still, quiet Japan was easier to process without the constant stimuli and bustling activity, which geared up around 9:30 a.m. In fact, one early morning, we almost walked right by the famous Gion Corner because it was so sedate. All the guidebooks claimed the best chance for a rare geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha) sighting, other than watching one of their scheduled seasonal Odori dances, is to visit a geisha district in the earlier evening when these celebrated entertainers of traditional Japanese arts are going to and from their appointments. Evidently, Gion Corner is the epicenter for geisha gazing.
Visualizing it as the hub of geisha gatherings was challenging, however, when the only inhabitants were a trim elderly woman shuffling down the street in sensible orthopedic shoes as she carried plastic bags of overflowing produce; another schedulely-challenged tourist hauling a worn, drooping backpack; and, finally, surprise, a street sweeper carefully disposing of a microscopic scrap of paper while dressed in what looked like bio-hazardous waste-handling ready wear. Although the Gion Corner area in the daytime displayed none of its busy evening allure nor the soft yellow glow from its lit lantern lineup, Suz and I strolled around anyway. Otherwise, we needed to rally and get back there at night if we hoped to see a geisha.
But sometimes the early bird catches the worm or at least sees a geisha crossing a street near our hotel carrying a bright yellow tote bag and sporting slouchy socks as well as golden flip flops. This was a definite score. Our non-Gion corner geisha seemed to be attending her own appointments in preparation for her day. Her hair, accessorized with Kanzashi, decorative Japanese hairpins, was done and her white makeup applied. Despite completed hair and makeup, she had not donned a kimono, yet, but instead a short red puffy robe/jacket dotted with yellow flowers over a basic long tan cloth skirt. She walked at a clipped pace— but not in the hurried “geisha gait” adopted to get to appointments and avoid the flashing cameras of tourists.
I thanked my circadian rhythms for not conforming to Japan’s timetable since I would have missed a truly once-in-a-lifetime sighting of a legitimate Japanese icon who wasn’t completely put together. She may have even been classified as “disheveled” according to geisha standards. The other encounter I now considered to be “must see” was with the huge white Bowing Buddha. Upon consulting Google again, we discovered BB was a Bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara, part of Ryozen Kannon, a memorial dedicated to the Japanese soldiers who lost their lives in World War II.
On our last full day in Kyoto, we finally tracked down Ryozen Kannon — in the morning, of course. With a backdrop of lush green trees, Avalokiteśvara sat on a temple platform. A reflecting pool in front of him contributed to the calm that was far more intense when standing right before the huge concrete Bodhisattva. Occasionally, the fall breeze spread ripples across the green water. Up a short row of stairs, stood a shrine. From it, hundreds of grapefruit sized golden discs, which displayed prayers in honor of the soldiers, hung, twirled and fluttered like large golden spangles in the wind.
Suz and I lit some incense before entering the memorial complex. Except for a monk and a woman running the memorial gift shop, we were the only people at Ryozen Kannon. We wandered around the grounds a while longer, amid more shrines and offerings, including colorful hot pink flower pinwheels and three barrels of sake near the temple entrance.
It did not matter which religion inspired the offerings and prayers or for which side the fallen soldiers fought. This special spot was hallowed. It was then, I knew exactly why looking out our hotel window at 5:30 a.m. was so comforting. And finally I understood why I appreciated getting up early in the morning along with the “Rising Sun.”
As Suz and I left Avalokiteśvara, a convoy of large domestic tour buses lurched into the parking lot, letting out streams of Japanese tourists who, it seemed, were just starting their day.