The Secret Map

Alone in Kyoto

It was August 2020, I’d flown to Kansai prefecture with my then partner, Erico. She had just three days to return to work in Tokyo, I had about a week to return to my job in Yokohama..

Narita airport had been the scene of science fictional emptiness you’d imagine an international transport hub in 2020 to be, barren even at the domestic gates.

Before arriving at our hotel in Osaka, we hopped out between trains for lunch in the usually bustling retro-cool neighbourhood Shinsekai, but were struck by two things. First, the desperation of restaurateurs attempting to lure us in; second, the sauna-like heat.

After some tasty takoyaki, sunstroke had us dyhydrated and vacuumed to our hotel bed. Walking through the core Osakan shopping arcades later in the cool of the evening, the thinned-out, typically dense human traffic, along with the state of emergency 9pm closing times of high street shops seemed to sap the energy from what is usually a hyper-kinetic, chaotic scramble of bar hoppers and shoppers.

We took a day trip to deer-dotted Nara in the morning, where electric bikes propelled us around the leafy ancient paradise. Before we immersed ourselves in the parks and temples, we happened upon Erico’s old primary school, situated on the ground of a Buddhist temple in the town centre. It must have been an idyllic place to grow up, no wonder she turned out such a sweet girl. For tourists like us in Nara, the absence of crowds was a blessing, although some of the locals may have mixed feelings about it.

Erico’s final day was spent in Kyoto, where I spent my remaining time on the trip. Like Osaka’s Shinsekei area, the shop owners, usually so reliant on tourist yen, were often at the entrances tempting us in with discounts. Erico was happy to take advantage of this for her omiyage – souvenirs for friends and coworkers.

The next morning we said goodbye, leaving me alone in the city.

The intense heat of Kyoto’s basin territory meant that few people, myself included, dared venture outside in the middle of the day unless they needed to, and the traditional holiday period known as ‘obon’ had fallen at this time, so not only were outsiders not flocking in, but many locals had shut up shop and returned to their hometowns.

Suddenly, one of the most popular cities on the planet found itself a little lonely.

Or perhaps, like me, it was merely contentedly alone.

Thank you to the Water and Light Project for printing and exhibiting the following photograph at their exhibition at SOCO Cafe, as part of Kyoto’s photography festival Kyotographie.

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