With the cherry blossom in full bloom, the geisha in all their made-up glory, and the excess of vermilion at the Fushimi Inari Shrine, springtime in Kyoto is a blaze of glorious colours.
It’s a blaze of a different kind – speed – that gets us there. While Japan can at times be super-organised and super-efficient it can also be archaically bureaucratic and it takes a good while, and no shortage of paperwork, to activate our Japan Rail Passes. But there ends the tardiness as a Shinkansen bullet train, travelling at speeds in excess of 240 kilometres per hour, takes just two hours to whisk us the 500km from Tokyo to its anagram, Kyoto, complete with a crystal clear view of Mount Fuji’s perfectly-shaped snow-capped cone as we whoosh past.
Our first morning in Kyoto dawns wet and overcast, but not enough to dampen our commitment to exploring Kyoto’s temples and gardens – this is what the city is famous for after all. And nowhere seems to typify old Kyoto more than the Higashiyama district, skirting the lower slopes of Kyoto’s eastern mountains. Its narrow, winding, cobble-stoned and stepped streets are lined with traditional wooden shops, teahouses and restaurants. Such is the quest for traditionalism, and the innate cleanliness and order of the Japanese, that’s it’s hard to determine whether the streets are genuinely old and traditional, or a sanitised replica of what they may once have been.
But there are traditional Japanese restaurants, and we’re game to try everything Japanese food-wise, so why not give the vegetarian option a go? Indian vegetarian food is fantastic after all, so why not Japanese? Cos it’s bloody awful that’s way. Some miso soup (which is never my favourite), cold soba noodles, and tsukemono, an assortment of unidentifiable pickled vegetables. The only positive is that I’ve already eaten one sandwich this morning and have another secreted about my person. After giving it my best shot I’ll be happy never to see a pickle again unless it’s in a jar with a Branston’s label on it.
The Kiyomizudera temple complex is one of the most celebrated temples of Japan, oozing symbolism from every corner. The Jishu Shrine is dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking. Drinking from the three separate streams of the Otowa Waterfall confer longevity, success at school and a fortunate love life. A visit to the three-storied Koyasu Pagoda is said to bring about an easy and safe childbirth. It’s an all-in-one love-and-life package. The Main Hall stands atop a huge veranda elevating it above the hillside, and it is a truly beautiful view of the picture-postcard bright-red pagoda set amongst the colourful maple and cherry trees.
A short walk down the Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka steps, takes us to the Kodai-ji Temple, notable primarily for its landscape architecture, featuring a pond, man-made hills and decorative rocks set amongst pine and maple trees; a rock garden consisting of a large field of immaculately raked gravel meant to represent the vast ocean; and a tranquil bamboo grove. It’s all very zen. Next stop is Maruyama Park – obviously not a temple – with its cherry trees in full bloom, and Chion-in Temple, with its spectacularly colossal main gate and its equally impressive stairway leading up to the main buildings.
After which, sacrilege to say, I think we’ve just about had enough of temples, and head over to Gion, an entertainment area squeezed between the river and Higashiyama and where one may apparently catch a glimpse of a geisha. Take a stroll down Hanami-koji, lined with preserved traditional machiya houses, now turned into restaurants and teahouses (ochaya), the most exclusive and expensive of Kyoto’s dining establishments, where guests are entertained by apprentice geisha (that famous double act, maiko and geiko). This is Kyoto’s high-end dining scene and not really our cup of finely blended Japanese tea.
No Japanese hotel would be truly Japanese without at least one quirk, and the Monterey Hotel Kyoto duly delivers with not only an onsen (hot baths), but also a chapel in the courtyard. And we’re not talking a small room where you can sit in the dark and get religious; we’re talking a full-on western-style gothic construction complete with pitched roof and lancet windows. I can’t decide whether it’s quite nice or exceptionally kitsch.
The onsen has to be tried out. After a long day traipsing around in the drizzle looking at a bewildering array of temples what could be better than a nice hot bath…with another bloke. Onsen are Japanese hot baths, typically fed by a hot spring – which the Hotel Monterey’s claims to be although as its on the thirteenth floor that may be open to question. Most are gender specific and swimsuits are not permitted. So it’s either get naked or go home. When in Rome…
Apparently you’re supposed to announce your arrival but thankfully I have the place to myself so am spared that embarrassment, not to mention the general discomfort that goes with being butt-naked in the company of other men. It also means that the shock-induced expletives upon entering the water go unheard. And bejeesus, it’s hot. Begin in the outdoor pool, with the odd sensation of your body being boiled alive while your head remains exposed to the rather cool elements; migrate to the indoor pool, then the sauna, the jacuzzi, and even give the cold water pool a very fleeting visit. But it’s all a wee bit too hot and suffocating for me. So I leave the two fellers that have since joined me to shrivel in peace and skulk back to the room and a cold beer. “D’ya see the Bears game?”
What is certainly not odd or eccentric are the hotel’s recommendations for places to eat. Never one to usually rely on such alternatives, invariably for fear of being directed to some over-priced tourist mecca, for some reason here we follow them to the letter. And every recommendation is superb; from a truly authentic sushi restaurant where we sit at the counter beside two salary-men and just keep ordering whatever they do; to a tremendous izakaya with five-star quality food (and beer); and another sushi bar complete with carousel conveying the dishes around the counter. The one night we venture out without a recommendation – for a combo of sushi, sashimi and tempura, which is probably a heinous crime in Japanese cuisine – is the least satisfactory of the four evening meals.
Our second day dawns a bit gloomy too but that still won’t dampen our hearty sight-seeing spirits. Catch a local train to Inari, site of the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Behind the main temple building begins a seemingly unending path of over 5,000 vibrant orange torii gates that wind through the hills. Each gate has been sponsored or financed by individuals or corporations whose names are inscribed on the gate. And very impressive it is too – gate after gate after gate creating long tunnels of vermilion spirituality.
Back on the train and on to Nara, Japan’s first permanent capital, established in the year 710, which is a long, long time ago. Visit one or two smaller temples en route but the big cheese here is the Todai-ji, the main hall of which, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall), is the world’s largest wooden building. Suffice it to say that it’s not the original. That, not surprisingly, has burnt down several times over the years and been painstakingly rebuilt each time. And inside the Big Buddha Hall, is, well, a Big Buddha, some fifteen meters tall. Take a walk in the drizzle through Nara Park to admire yet more cherry blossom and say hello to some rather mangy and smelly deer, and feed them some crackers sold by local vendors. (Since when did deer eat crackers?) Then wind our way slowly all the way back to the station, back to the train, and back to Kyoto.
In contrast to the previous day’s rain and gloom, our third day in Kyoto is deliciously bright and sunny, so we’re off to the bike shop to hire some bicycles and explore Kyoto under pedal power. Such is the civility of Japanese society, that having selected our cycles and reached for the wallet, the old feller shook his head and told us to pay when we get back. If he did that in other places he’d be stripped of his bikes in a matter of minutes.
The Japanese are just incredibly, overwhelmingly, charmingly, unfailingly, nice and polite. I’d imagine that after a while living here the bowing and the etiquette could become rather tiresome, but for a tourist, especially one from Hong Kong, it’s just so refreshing. The Lonely Planet advises that in the event of not being sure what the particular etiquette is, just use some common sense and do what would be considered acceptable in your own country. Perhaps not such good advice when it comes to the mainland Chinese. It’s no wonder the two countries historically hate each other. Could two countries possibly be so diametrically opposed in terms of manners and etiquette?
Get on our bikes and ride over to Teramachi Street but we’re a bit early for the shops so head east towards the river and then north towards Gion. Then along the aforementioned Hanami-koji, and further north towards Shinbashi-dori which the Lonely Planet describes as one of the loveliest streets in Japan if not the whole of Asia. And they’re not far wrong. With the cherry blossom, the canal, the old fashioned low rise buildings and the cobbled streets, it is stunningly beautiful. And a couple of geisha even appear to complete the picture, pursued paparazzi-style by tourists, Japanese and gaijin alike, as they totter down the street in their wooden heels.
Pick up some tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet) and a bento box from a convenience store and sit by the canal for an al fresco lunch. Then back on the bikes to follow the Japanese equivalent of a tow-path along the river. After seeing a purple heron feeding in the canal, there are egrets and cranes fishing in the river. And that’s about the extent of my bird-watching knowledge and I daresay I’ve probably got them wrong an’ all. With the cherry blossom everywhere, the birds on the river, folk out enjoying the sunshine, and us enjoying our cycling, Kyoto seems wonderful today.
Next stop is the Imperial Palace, no longer occupied by any royalty of course – they moved to Tokyo years ago. We’d understood the Palace to be closed to the public but more by luck than judgement we’ve hit the Spring Open Day period when it’s not only open to the public but also free of charge. It’s also rather damned crowded and in truth there’s not a huge amount to see but still well worth the hour or so it takes to walk around it. Whilst previously rather nonplussed by Japanese gardens, or any gardens for that matter, it’s actually the immaculately landscaped and tended gardens which are of most interest.
Opt against a cycle over to Nijo Castle and instead choose to enjoy another leisurely cycle all the way back down the river to Teramachi Street, and on to Nishiki market, a narrow, five-block long shopping street lined with more than one hundred shops, most selling food – some cooked and some not; some recognisable and some very definitely not. And finally back to the cycle shop to return the bikes and pay our money. And that must be the best ten quid I’ve ever spent. And for some reason which still escapes me, we failed to visit Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, one of Kyoto’s premier destinations, if not one of the country’s, and one of those places that frequently appears on lists of things you must see before you die. Oops.
And that’s the end of our time in Kyoto. Another spell in the onsen would be an ideal way to soothe away the aching muscles but love the Japanese as much as I do I’ve had enough of hanging out with naked men.