THE BLOG
06/08/2011 12:36 pm ET | Updated Aug 08, 2011

Kyoto's Subway System

I go to Kyoto once a year. I get lost in Kyoto once a year. Kyoto makes no sense to me. I'm more of a Tokyo girl. Give me a handful of subway lines and trains to navigate and I'm fine. Give me just two and I'm lost.

Is it the Karasuma line or Tozai line? Kintetsu or Keihan? Kurasama eki or Kurasama oike? Hmmm. And let's just say that signage is not a strong point of Kyoto's stations. To know Kyoto is to know it intuitively. A good relationship with the Buddha and an ability to navigate mandalas probably helps.

I should feel bad about my ineptness trying getting around Kyoto, and I want to feel bad about it, but actually, whether I feel bad or not doesn't change the situation. I'm just lucky that subway trains come and go with frequency.

But rather than dwell on my unique Kyoto navigation disability, instead I call on my friend John to escort me around. He's lived there for ages and has an almost spiritual relationship with the place.

So it was with some stress the other day that I was standing in Karasuma Station, without John, attempting to go to Shijyo, which is a stop either on the Karasuma line, or the Tozai line, I'm not sure which. On the subway map on the wall, I can see that Gojyo (5jyo) and Kujyo (9jyo) are on the Karasuma Line but there is no mention of Shijyo (4jyo). Now, logic would tell you that 4jyo is one stop before 5jyo and 5 stops before 9jyo. But excuse me while I have a Zen moment here. I need to meditate on this.

Anyone who has been to Japan before knows that logic is not the way to go about things here. Japan is a place where the old movies are in "white and black" rather than black and white, and seasonal temperature changes are described as "cold and hot" rather than hot and cold. I went on an 88-temple pilgrimage in Japan once that jumped from temple number eight to temple number 10. Temple nine was after temple 13. The strange thing is, no one knows why, not even the Buddhist priests.

These are the things that make me pause before the ticket machine on the subway line. Next, I ask myself, "Is there even such a stop as 4jyo?"

Believe it or not, some buildings in Japan don't have a fourth floor. The elevator goes from the third floor to the fifth. This is because the word four, pronounced shi is a homonym for the word "death" in Japanese. Skipping the fourth floor is not a problem for me. The problem for me is: If there is no fourth floor, where is it?!

Is the fifth floor really the fourth floor? Or do they keep the fourth floor empty? Perhaps it is reserved for the dead souls? Forget dying and going to Heaven, in Japan maybe you die and go to the fourth floor.

4jyo, called "Shijyo," also shares the homonym shi for death, so perhaps Shijyo has met this fate. Maybe I'll have to get off at 5jyo instead. Or if I do get off at 4jyo, maybe a bunch of souls will greet me. "Grandma! Long time no see!"

Or, it could be that the 4jyo stop is like the hidden track number in the Harry Potter stories. Only those in the know can disappear into it and from there you enter into another dimension. Betting on the latter, I board the subway train.

They make a big deal out of direction in Japan -- there is Amida Nyorai's "Pure land of the West" where one can be reborn, the Buddha was facing East when he reached enlightenment and one shouldn't sleep with their head facing North (as the dead were buried). So why is it that getting around Kyoto, the soul of Japan, isn't as simple as heading in a certain direction? Where is John?

Later on the Tozai line (don't ask me how I got there) I passed a station called Rokujizo, or "six jizos." Jizo is the bodhisattva who watches over travelers. And there were six of them I just passed up! You'd think six jizos would be enough to constitute a tourist information booth.

Is it possible to pray to the Buddha for directions? Next time I take the subway, I'll get into the Lotus Position and find out.

Just for the record, I did find Shjyo (4jyo) station on the Karasuma Line, which is indeed before Gojyo (5jyo) station, however, not after Sanjyo (3jyo).