Japan is a land of surprises. One of the first for me was how much it resembles Switzerland: well-groomed and safe, with spectacular mountains and fast, efficient trains. Another was the food: I mean, pickle sticks?
It’s all part of an incredibly quirky country. Vending machines on every street corner. Umbrella stands with locks outside public buildings. And, whether due to Covid or potential terrorist attacks, no trash cans to be found on the incredibly clean streets; apparently they take their rubbish home with them. Dog walkers even carry bottles of water to rinse their pets’ pee from the pavement.
After a few days in Tokyo, we got our Japan Rail passes and took the Shinkansen, or bullet train, to Kyoto. It was a 2.5 hour ride, smooth and uneventful, other than the deciphering of very complicated instructions in the toilets (par for the course in the land of the Toto).
Along the way we had a view of breathtaking Mount Fuji. I didn’t bother taking a photo – it was far away and besides, you know what it looks like, right?
Arriving in Kyoto main station was impressive. The architecture of the main hall is strikingly modern and filled with shopping and food experiences. Who knew donuts were a thing in Japan?
On a side note, the store is a central feature of modern-day Japan. The department store in the station, with its abundance of merchandise and polished staff, reminded me of Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel about an ‘Artificial Friend’ who works as a greeter at such a store when the book begins. And the abundance of 7 Eleven and Lawson’s Station shops all over Japan made me think of Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata, an incredibly simple story which I also loved.
We took a taxi to our rental, an historic architect’s house called The Old Modern. Built in 1928, it has been carefully refurbished and converted into holiday rental suites but retains many of the original features – lovely wooden floors and tatami mats, wall coverings etc. First up: no shoes. This is true throughout Japan, where shoes are left by the door and slippers used within. These are provided, as long as you are willing to slip your tootsies into shared footwear. Being of a fussy nature, I procured my own from the aforementioned department store (cheap, and aren’t they cute?).
True to its name, the place was long on style but less so on comfort. It had all the essentials: a comfortable bed (actual bed, not futons), lounge area, coffee and tea, etc. But the building is the original structure, so the walls are windows are not air tight (we felt the vibrations of every passing vehicle). Most homes in Japan are minimally heated, and while it was not exactly cold we did feel the damp. On the plus side was this beautiful interior garden, so typical of Japanese houses.
The main attraction in Kyoto is the shrines, so we headed out to those for the next couple of days. So did a great many other tourists. The thing in Japan that is utterly different from most of Switzerland is density. No matter when you go, there are a great many other people who are also doing the same thing. Still, the shrines and temples are amazing: Yasaka, Kiyomizu and Jishu, the lover’s shrine, where we saw another proliferation of wishes.
The streets in Japan’s ancient capital are filled with people wearing traditional clothing, many of whom are couples celebrating weddings. But others, whether monks or geishas, are also at home there. In one street well known for its geishas, our guide explained that there is a ‘no photography’ rule to protect the privacy of clients. What surprised me most was the wooden footwear. How they manage to clomp around the streets and up the steps of the shrines remains a mystery.
Our second stay in Kyoto was at a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. Our two nights there featured all the essentials that make this such a memorable experience: changing into our yukata and visiting the public baths, sleeping on futons laid out on tatami mats, a multi-course kaiseki meal served at low tables in our room. Another surprise for me in Japan was the food, with its rich variety of tastes and textures, making me realize just how much more diverse is the cuisine than our limited view from the west. It is so much more than sushi and tempura, although I love both.
One memorable food experience was lunch with my husband’s former colleague and her partner, who did not speak much English. While Ayumi and Stefan compared notes from the corporate world, Daisuke and I nodded and smiled over the succession of beautiful dishes.
Before leaving the city for the next part of our journey, we returned to Kyoto main station and took a friend’s recommendation to sample the beef at the rooftop restaurant there. Despite the touristy location, the wagyu beef was melt-in-the-mouth and as a bonus, I enjoyed a half-bottle of fine French Bordeaux!
Now that the year-end festivities are behind us, I hope to be back with more surprising memories of Japan soon. Until then, thank you for reading and bonne année 2023!
I’m astonished at how your experiences of Japan chime so exactly with ours in South Korea. Only the wooden shoes were absent for us!
Isn’t that interesting, Margaret? South Korea is still a place I’d love to visit, along with Vietnam and Cambodia. Knowing that your experience was similar, guess I would feel right at home! Happy new year!
And to you too! I wonder if the food is as similar as the rest though. A lot of fermenting goes on in Korea. Only one way to find out!
Happy New Year to you, Mel!! Your post brought back so many happy memories!! I loved the tea vending machines, and the food in Japan was just out of this world! We had exactly the same Ryokan experience with the yukata, the baths and the amazing keiseki meal. The breakfast in our Ryokan was also incredible! Did you see the wooden ‘platform’ shoes??
Yes, some of the wooden shoes are extraordinary! Even the simple sandals must be hell to walk in. But like you, I did love the overall experience of Japan. As for the food, I loved everything except the traditional breakfast. Stefan took the Japanese breakfast several times, but I just couldn’t face miso soup and smoked fish that early in the day. On the other hand, there is great coffee and donuts available just about everywhere!
And I almost forgot — très bonne année to you Andreas!!!
The thing I couldn’t stomach was natto, fermented soy beans which had a kind of slimy texture and an unappetising (to me) smell.
Oh Mel! I could hug you. In fact, I will…-HUG!- your description of the ryokan matches the info I could only get online. Feels wonderful to know my research came so close to the reality. One thing the research couldn’t do was show me the glorious dishes. My eyes have literally been popping out of my head at how visually beautiful the food is. Thank you for giving me this lovely taste of the real Japan. Domo arigato gozaimasu!
Meeka, so glad you found it useful! I didn’t realize you had researched the ryokan experience. I can share a few more details… We stayed in Seikora Ryokan, which is not the most luxurious but definitely among the most traditional. The people who run it (a family, I think) take great pride in their cordial hospitality, which includes advising guests on places to go and things to see. Also, many of the lovely dishes were accompanied by origami, as well as the ones waiting for us in our room.
I studied Japanese at uni and I’ve been a lover of all things Japanese since I was about 8. Don’t laugh but there used to be a show called The Samurai on Australian TV when I was a kid. Dubbed Japanese but absolutely wonderful. I’d watch it religiously every day as soon as I got home from school.
Long story short, I’d love any personal info you can give me. Researching online is fine but it never feels quite the same as hearing about it from someone who’s been there in person.
How cool that you are a student of Japanese! I admire anyone willing to take on such a challenging language. My husband spends hours every day learning his Kanjis. I could share a few more photos from the ryokan but not sure how. Our attendant’s name was Yumi and she was just lovely. Warm and friendly, yet discreet; nothing was too much trouble. Every time she came to our room (a dozen times perhaps in an evening) she removed her slippers and crouched down so neatly at the table. Kept apologizing for her English, which was really very good. When we left everyone stood around in a half-circle to send us off. Almost felt like family!
Japanese is polysyllabic so it’s easier to speak than say Mandarin which has ‘tones’. Get the tones wrong and you’re likely to say something…embarrassing! The grammar though, is challenging as the verb often comes at the end of the sentence. And then there’s the kanji. 😀 Please tell your husband that I’m seriously impressed that he’s prepared to learn. I still have my dictionary, but I’ve forgotten every character I ever learned.
Re pics, if it’s easier you could send them to my email: nikkojii at triptychacf dot com.
You bring back many happy memories, including that stunning station. You’re right about the likeness to Switzerland, perhaps one of the reasons we enjoy spending time in both countries (and hopefully heading to both this year). Loving your reflections on it all!
Oh I do hope you can make it back this year! I know how much you love travel and after the long hiatus am sure that you will enjoy it all the more. As for Japan, I’m relying heavily on notes now for my posts but it was just too much to process all at once. Happy to bring back fond memories!
I enjoy seeing photos of Japan. Often they seem paradoxical, modern then ancient scenes taken without minutes, hours of each other. Yours are like that. The food photos also look wonderful. Such attention to presentation, both in daily life and on your plate.
Yes, Japan is all those things, and a land of contrasts indeed. Attention to detail in presentation also translated to an excess of packaging around even small food items. And complexity in everything, from ordering food to getting around. But always with a solution if you are patient. Such a rich experience!
Belated bonne année. I’ve never been to Japan and probably never will, so I’m enjoying your descriptions vicariously. I’m not sure I’d like the density of people you mention, having been spoilt here in that regard, but I’m sure as a cultural experience, it must be enlightening. I’ve also read ‘Convenience Store Woman’. How different from France!
Bonne année to you, too! (I always bear in mind that there is a grace period in France until end of January…) Glad you are enjoying Japan through the blog. The posts are slow in coming as we have a lot going on with our planned move which has fallen through and now, back to house searching! We did find the density much lower as soon as you get out of the big cities, which was actually the part of the trip I enjoyed most. Hope to share more soon!