Getting lost is one method of finding your way.

The outcome is usually positive, but the process is not always pleasant.

Case in point:

I got lost on my first run this summer in Kyoto. Badly lost. So lost I don’t even know how I got so lost. But there I was on Horikawa-dori with no idea how to get back to where I started.

The run began in an orderly way. I left my lodgings by Rokken-machi around 6 am and headed towards the sprawling shrine complex of Kitano Tenmangu, then over to the smaller Hirano Shrine, and up a narrow road parallel to the broad Nishi-oji Boulevard

I had walked the route the morning before, searching for a good running path. I had gone out for about a mile and turned back when I came to a T-intersection. Somewhere along the way I took a different road on my return and ended up walking through Kamishichiken, the oldest of the five remaining geisha districts in Kyoto. It’s also the most subdued and strolling along the narrow streets in the morning quiet was a mistake I was glad I’d made.

I thought about repeating that mistake on my way back this time as well. But I never got the chance.

I ran as far as the T-intersection where I had turned back on my morning walk the day before.

I felt strong. If I went further, I could increase my mileage. To my left I saw the road leading to Kinkakuji, the iconic “golden” temple.

I headed up the hill in that direction. It’s rare to see the road so free of tourists. I was the only one there—huffing and puffing in the humid air—except for a pair of elderly men chatting at the crest of the hill. We exchanged greetings as I crossed the road at the light and turned to head back.

And now it was all downhill.

What a great run this was!

It had been a while since I’d felt so energetic. Finally, the jetlag was over! While in Tokyo I had gone out for a few runs. But I’d have to walk every 1000 steps or so while I regained my stamina. Here I felt I could run forever.

I passed the Sarasa Café.

Wait a minute. The café was not on my route. I would have noticed it before. The Sarasa is in an old bathhouse repurposed in 2000 as a restaurant and studio. The interior still retains the old bath tiles. I visited the café in 2019 and have already worked it into my next Ruth novel.

The Sarasa Café Credit: Author’s photograph

The Sarasa Café Credit: Author’s photograph

Okay, so I’ve taken a bit of a detour, but I’m running parallel to the street I want to be on. Let’s keep going and I’ll correct when I get to the bottom of the hill.

(Clearly, I did not want to backtrack. Never backtrack. Besides, backtracking meant going uphill.)

I saw a broad avenue ahead of me.

That must be Imadegawa, the busy street that runs past Kitano Tenmangu. I’ll take a left there and I’ll be back on course.

Wrong.

I took a left and ran a block. Kitano Tenmangu should have been there. It was not.

Maybe a little further? Maybe the other way? Where are the street signs!

There are never any street signs when you need them here.

Horikawa-dori.

Horikawa? What am I doing here? The bus I took yesterday traversed Horikawa. I know it’s a major thoroughfare in Kyoto, but where is it in relation to my bus stop—Senbon-Imadegawa?

I tried to construct a map in my head. Kyoto is relatively grid-like and arrayed with avenues running east-west and north-south. I know the eastern side of the map quite well and would have trouble getting lost there. But this area is different. Nothing was familiar.

I scanned the bus stops as I jogged past them, looking for a familiar number or destination.

I started walking, trying to pay attention.

There were signs to places I knew, Imamiya Shrine, for example. I had stopped by there in 2019, too. But I couldn’t say where it was on a map—except that is was not where I wanted to be.

Everything I thought I knew, I didn’t know.

I felt like I was walking through the surrealist short story “Rain at Rokudo Crossroads,” by Saegusa Kazuko (1929-2003). In the story a man in Kyoto is heading home on a rainy night when suddenly a woman joins him under his umbrella. They walk along together, and he loses all sense of time and place:

Flustered, the man tried to remember the route he’d taken since he first encountered the woman. He had been on his way home when it had started raining. His house was at Karasuma Kuramaguchi. Now he was altogether in the wrong place. Furthermore, the distance between his house and where he was now could not be covered on foot. He remembered making a U-turn away from his house, and since then everything had grown strange. The rain must have altered the appearance of the town. There was no other explanation. But no matter how long he walked, he had the sensation that an endless black concrete wall loomed up on both sides of the street (trans. Yukiko Tanaka).

In the story, the map of Kyoto that the man carries in his mind has warped and grown oddly unfamiliar. Recognizable places appear in unrecognizable areas. The man enters a wormhole of sorts and journeys into a tangle of repressed memories until finally he is released at dawn.

Would I have to wait until the dawn to find my bearings?

Sure, I wasn’t trapped in an M.C. Escher-like story world, but even so here I was on Horikawa-dori with no phone and no money, walking and walking and having no luck finding a familiar landmark.

It was hopeless.

I started to look for someone who could help me find my way.

It was early, not yet 7:00 am. There weren’t many people out. And those who were out were not very approachable. There was a man in leather getting on his motorbike, a group of high school girls running, an old man who seemed hungover. And then I saw a couple, a man about my age with a young woman. I approached them and asked if they might point me in the direction of Kitano Tenmangu.

The man looked stunned.

“It’s pretty far from here.”

“That’s okay, I have already walked from the shrine and have lost my bearings. I need to get back.”

He pulled out his phone and opened a map.

“Or Senbon-Imadegawa would be fine, too.” I gave the name of the bus stop nearest my lodgings.
He showed me his phone, pointing to where we were on the miniscule map and then gestured in the direction I needed to go. His phone screen was small it was difficult to see. But at least the direction he pointed to was clear enough.

He didn’t think so, though.

He and the woman went out of their way to walk me up the hill to a relatively wide avenue.

“Take this road all the way to the top of that hill. It’s going to bend to the left. Follow the road. Eventually, you’ll get to Imadegawa and then you go right to Kitano Tenmangu.”

It was as if he’d pointed me to the Holy Land. I was elated.

I thanked him and went on my way. Soon, I discovered that the wide road I was on was Senbon-dori.

Perfect.

I knew where I was. Or, I knew how to get to where I would know where I was.

And soon I was home.

Earlier I had thought I’d go a block further to increase my morning run to 5000 steps. I ended up adding an additional 10,000. But now I knew the way back.