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!