‘No problem finding your train, all well signposted,’ the concierge in Tokyo assures me. Arriving at Tokyo station to take bullet train Nazomi 121 to Kyoto in peak rush hour, we find the place teeming with people running in all directions and the boards only giving information for the next 20minutes. In Japan, few people speak English, but by brandishing our tickets at a man in uniform, we are ably directed to the correct platform. A quick stop for an on-board snack; choosing from a wide variety of plastic-looking sushi boxes, and an Asahi for Ross (snack turned out to be rather expensive assorted preserved vegetables, not that delicious for $15!).
We queue up in orderly fashion with a host of overgrown schoolboys in tight suits; the doors open precisely 5 minutes before departure and we find our allocated seats. Bang on time the train silently departs, stopping at one or two commuter stations before speeding off in the gloaming. As the sun sets we have a magnificent view of Mt Fuji. Bullet trains travel at 280 kph, and there are plans to introduce a magnetic train in 10nyears or so which will go TWICE as fast!
The boys are having fun: reading Manga comics, drinking Asahis, taking lessons in tie-tying and slipping out in twos and threes for a surreptitious ciggie in the smoking room. Yes, you heard me right – the smoking room!
Two hours 17 minutes later we pull into Kyoto. Next challenge, finding a cab. There is along queue; then we notice there is another much shorter one adjacent to us; an American couple think it’s because it’s for a longer distance, later we find it’s marginally – all of Yen 100 – more expensive, hence the shorter line, which in a country as dear as here is slightly barmy. So we arrive at the only hotel we could book in Kyoto over the peak weekend of the cherry blossom season, the Nean No Mori.
‘Japanese style room OK?’ We assured the receptionist we knew this was the deal, and are shown into an oblong room with two futons spread on tatami mats, with a low slung table and chairs, and a rice paper screen shielding us from the outer room; the bathroom is a plastic capsule with the tiniest bath I’ve ever seen, fine for a shower, beige 80s style, but all perfectly clean. The Japanese only use the bath for relaxing after they have washed themselves on a stool, and the water is only changed once a day. It makes sense, as the whole family is clean by the time they have a soak! No-one could have fitted in this tiny specimen though.
Too late for dinner we wander down the street, as directed. It is bitterly cold and I do not have enough warm clothes despite an emergency Zara shop in Singapore! The only place we find open is the Kodakara Grill, where we are served gloopy and disgusting Teriyaki chicken (with mash and spaghetti!) and a kind of egg fried rice. All my pure diet intentions have gone out the window, I am so hungry anything will do. Lesson on Japanese food: when it says Grill it will be an East/West amalgam: the Japanese love western food. On this menu I was amused to a see Omaruris – rice omelette to you and me! Not a good introduction to Kyoto, the culinary centre and former capital of Japan.
Back at the hotel we are greeted by a gaggle of elderly kimono-clad gents, brandishing fistfuls of Asahi, leering at all the pretty young girls, and trying to engage us in banter. One even follows us into the lift; the fumes coming off him are quite overpowering…I later find that there is a Japan farmers group staying, which explains the weather-beaten complexions and poor teeth! The hotel is, in fact, a spa hotel with two large segregated pools, where you bathe naked. You, I said, not I or we, as we forwent this experience on account of my bad leg (not allowed!).
The next morning, while not quite bright and clear, is at least dry and chilly. We meet our guide Shimode-san in reception. She is a tiny, attractive woman, a professional guide, who was one of the earliest exchange students to go to the US, sponsored by the Rotary Club. As a result she speaks excellent English. She looks incredibly young, but we work out she must be about 50 as she’s been married 30 years like us.
Leg is improving in the cold weather, great flakes of burned skin are peeling off and the swelling is reduced, but it has not yet been put through its paces.
Shimode-san makes few allowances, although we persuade her that metro and bus are perhaps rather too much for starters, so we are allowed a taxi to Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple, and some taxis in between, although we do enjoy a local train train journey the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Nevertheless we work out that in 6 hours on day one, we have walked 5 kms!
As it’s peak cherry blossom season (although the blossoms themselves only last 4-5 days), everywhere we go is thronged with people, some in large groups, others in families, some Caucasian, but mostly Asiatic, including some Singaporeans and the former Taiwanese ambassador to London, who had met Blair and Thatcher. He was delighted to meet us when he asked us to take his photo. A close neighbour, he had lived in Avenue Road!
At specific tourist highlights, for instance the Zen garden in Ryoan-ji and the Shogun’s palace Nijo-jo, we shuffle into line to see and to take photos. Most of the sites today are outside and the gardens are truly beautiful, formal and informal – lakes surrounded by blossoms of all sorts, not just cherry, 20 ft camellias (mostly red), azaleas, winter jasmine, pieris, meadowsweet – huge sprays of brilliant white flowers – in abundance, and Japanese maple everywhere, just coming into leaf. Instead of grass, there is moss: Ross is very taken with this idea for the back lawn.
In the evening we venture in to Gion, the traditional entertainment district, which is buzzing with life, even in the bitter drizzle. We find a bar to sip a much-needed whisky, having glimpsed the obligatory Geisha bustling off to her appointment. There are only 200 left in Kyoto and, before a girl is accepted into training, she must finish elementary school
We had been strongly advised to have a kaiseki meal in Kyoto; although expensive at Yen 8500 per person, we are not disappointed by Yagenbori. We are led up to the top floor of this converted townhouse – I would have preferred to be in the downstairs area, seated on tatami mats and in full view of the chefs – where we are shown into a private room, one of two separated by screens.
Kaiseki is a series of small delicacies all presented in perfect harmony in different porcelain vessels; mostly vegetarian but here with a fair amount of local fish. Our courses comprise octopus, bamboo shoots, and wasabi greens in a kind of aspic; a fish quenelle in a dashi broth; sashimi; grilled fish with a deliciously crispy scaly skin; bamboo shoot and seaweed with fish roe; tempura and the ubiquitous miso soup, here served with delicate pickles and sticky rice…accompanied by warm sake and finished with green tea. Elegantly served, as you would expect in Japan. The two gentlemen next door seemed to be having a magnificent feast as we hear the noises of appreciation through the rice paper screen.
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Day two of our trip is marred by the realisation that we don’t have enough cash to get through the day and, more importantly, to get back to Tokyo. We simply can’t fathom how we have spent so much money; Singapore is meant to be the most expensive city in the world but Japan seems far more costly. Ross is despatched on an ATM hunt; he returns after 45 minutes, no luck: in Japan most ATMs only dispense to local customers… hotel refuses to change money as we are not Japanese! So we gamble on getting an expensive cab ride downtown to a Citibank rumoured to be the only place to get cash. It works! But it limits our time in Kyoto to tackle the Northern Higashiyama temples.
The early morning drizzle is still floating around when we arrive at the magnificent Nanzen-ji; as advised by Lonely Planet we trek up – yes up – a steep slope, lined with 25ft camellias, to a tiny shine nestled by a waterfall, Oku-no-in, where we find a tough guy towelling off after a dip. The only other people there are a mother and son, lighting candles. It is unexpectedly peaceful. The silence is shattered by our brave bather suddenly blowing on a large conch shell, frightening the life out of me!
The heavy rain starts as we meander downwards to the sumptuous Eikan-Do temple, but then the sun comes out and stays with us as we plod along the Path of Philosophy, with thousands of others. We see a couple of newlyweds, brides obviously freezing as they pose amongst the blossom. It is a popular time to get married. As the concierge in Tokyo said, cherry blossom season is the only time he ever sees Japanese openly enjoying themselves, and we bear witness. The crowds are almost entirely Japanese, in festive mood.
Sadly we miss out on the Silver Temple, Ginkaku-ji, as we have to find our way to the bullet train and back to Tokyo. We leave Kyoto bathed in pink light, blossom swirling in the light breeze. It is already starting to drop…we have only scratched the surface of things to do, but what perfect timing!
PS the good photos are Ross’s. Mine are the iPhone ones!