Story Time: The Joy of Getting Lost in Japan

The Worst/Best Hangover
Let me take you back to the 1st of June 2015, or as I fondly remember it: The Worst/Best Hangover I ever had. It was the day following a rather wonderful night of karaoke and sake in Kyoto with my two friends/travelling buddies, as well as the rag-tag crew we managed to accumulate at our hostel. Understandably, we decided the best thing for us the next day was a brisk midday walk to ease our head aches and take in some more of the spectacular scenery on offer. We therefore decided it was time to visit the Fushimi Inari shrine, and tick off another location on our itinerary.
We made our bleary way to the station and collapsed onto bus seats, content to spend the next 10 minutes or so silently staring out the windows preserving what was left of our shredded vocal chords. It took us a solid 30 minutes to realise we were in fact headed in precisely the wrong direction. Blinking wearily we stumbled off the bus at a randomly selected stop. My usually panic-prone and plan-oriented mind was churning like porridge, and I figured we were now somewhere in the North of Kyoto, but beyond that I was clueless. We were lost. On any other day, this would have been a living nightmare for me; a girl who un-ironically carried money in a bum-bag for safe keeping and had plotted our journey up to this point in minute detail. However, it seemed the hangover was creating some kind of buffer in my brain, so we decided to wander around these quiet, sun-baked streets.

Lost and Found
It wasn't long before we felt inexplicably drawn up a hill, and to our right was a shady gateway lined with lush green plants. Like petals floating on a breeze we drifted through and found ourselves in an idillic garden, with azaleas in full bloom. This hidden gem revealed itself to be Shisen-dō, a historic Buddhist temple and hermitage garden. Founded in 1641, it is registered as a historic sight of Japan and considered a masterwork of Japanese gardens. It didn't take long to see why; the garden was alive with colour and a veritable symphony of pleasant sounds, featuring the tinkling of a small stream and the periodic "tock tock" of a genuine sōzu, or deer scare. The main building itself featured tatami floors, portraits of famous Chinese poets, and a veranda looking out onto a pristine karesansui or "dry landscape" garden.
We ended up spending hours in this eden, enjoying these moments of stillness, contrasting with our otherwise non-stop adventure up to this point. I felt so relaxed that I accidentally slipped into a short but peaceful nap right there on the tatami floor, enjoying the warm air and bird song, surely to the silent disapproval of the few other visitors who came and went.
We found it very difficult to tear ourselves away, feeling our hangovers fading away by the minute until we felt completely fresh and purified. Eventually we made our way out, feeling as if we had shared a collective daydream, and brought this bliss with us to Fushimi Inari, only 4 hours or so later than planned.

Upon Reflection
After discussing our unexpected experience, myself and my friends agreed that there was no way we would have chosen to visit Shinsen-dō if we hadn't taken a wrong turn. With only a few days to take in so much of Kyoto, of course we were automatically drawn to the more famous and iconic parts of the city, such as Arashiyama and Gion. While of course we had unforgettable times in each of these places, we felt that these experiences were complimented by the quieter, more personal sights and sounds of relative seclusion; The feeling that we had discovered something secret. It was in those moments that we felt we were beginning to scratch the surface of Japan, and it was those kind of experiences myself and my friends sought throughout the rest of our trip.

As someone who feels comfortable thoroughly researching a place and planning exact routes in order to make the most out of limited time, I now also see equal value of hopping on a train or bus and getting off somewhere isn't featured on a "Top 10" list. Embrace the unexpected and you'll never be disappointed. And a quiet afternoon in a magic garden is a pretty excellent hangover cure!

Vicky Stephen