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Friday, 10 April 2015

Kyoto: Geisha Girls, Sakura, Sushi, Sweat and Shinkansen

Sakura (Cherry Blossom season) is ending but I've made it - 
just in time to catch the last of this stunning array of blossoms

Kyoto was once the capital city of Japan, but it’s hard to feel that on arrival at a railway station whose outside plaza looked like a smaller version of Tokyo’s, with fewer bright lights but the same style of cafe, taxis and nearby office buildings (again shorter). In fact it was originally the capital of Japan when most of the inhabited parts of Japan could only properly be called ‘villages’ or, at best, ‘towns’. Prior to 1550 Kyoto was one of the two or three places which could rightly be called a city.
I was so tired and aching on the plane that I did not manage to accomplish my customary pleasure of reading the guidebook or history of the place to which I am about to fly. I knew I would not have time to visit Nara, where Kyoto was first established as capital.

Pork Curry. Yum. Nomnomnom.
Little wonder I needed a lie down afterwards...

Straight off to lunch at a restaurant by the railway station, I had my first taste of ‘real’ Japanese food in the form of pork curry (a bit like katsu curry for Wagamama lovers everywhere), accompanied, of course, by rice, which I think I have now (as I write this days later) have fully accepted as my dietary staple, along with whatever fresh fish it comes with. Other items on the menu at the restaurant included spag bol, ham sandwiches and pancakes. Hmmm. Yes, I think that the brand strategy of this restaurant was: let’s offer something that could be eaten at any time of day from USA or that’s vaguely European and throw in a couple of Japanese things as an afterthought.

My feet were by this stage in a pretty awful state and my eyelids dropping, so after a rainy walk along a few of the city’s streets I tucked myself up in bed in our hotel room for the afternoon and left the girls to visit the Geishas in another part of the city. What a change from a couple of years ago where I would have exhausted myself by ignoring all of my body's and mind’s pleas. Sometimes I now know that I have to, and their photos – particularly this one Helen took of Geishas by a vending machine, showed to me the bizarre but somehow quite natural mixture of the very modern and ancient traditions of the country.

Vending machines are everywhere, selling a variety of drinks with simple names such as Pocari Sweat, which is not the labours of ancient Samurai bottled in liquid form, but a bit like a saline drip in a bottle, and just what I needed to try to address my dehydrated head and body from the 15 hour flight. Now, don’t take my word for it, because my sense of smell and taste were damaged in my fall, but it’s actually not too bad. I’m sure it’s a bit like Lucozade Sport with less sugar; I’m equally sure the name might not catch on in the west!

Pocari Sweat. A drip (IV) in a bottle by another name.

Further natural needs are addressed with a very hi-tech approach, namely, the W.C.s. Never in my life have I been so baffled by the complexities of a toilet. Some of you may remember shivering in winter on well ventilated, unheated toilets: not in Japan. Here you more often than not (in cities) can have your rump pampered with a warmed seat! We stayed at the Karasuma Kyoto hotel and had a lovely warm loo seat. You can also have a bidet, more water, and a host of other things I am not quite able to interpret with my Japanese being as it is, limited to ‘thank you’, ‘hello’, ‘yes’, ‘goodbye’, and of course the all important, ‘sake’. I have (yes I know, I’m weird, but come on, you knew that) taken some pictures for you to see for yourselves. I think this definitely could catch on in the UK. Forget under floor heating. Let’s go for heated loo seats. (Then again, the loo readers among us would then take even longer to vacate the premises, especially in winter. Perhaps that’s why (to my knowledge) it hasn’t yet featured on Dragons’ Den.)

There appears to be a musical option here I didn't try. 
Make sure you don't let the opportunity pass?

Waking in the evening just in time for drinks and dinner, we visited the hotel bar where an entire jamon Iberico appeared to be on display as well as lots and lots of single malts and other whiskies. This is something I had read about before I came: Japan loves its whisky, so much so that one man has created an extremely successful whisky business (Suntory) – Insert website information – and this is readily available in cans a bit like one might by a G&T from the station.

Delicious sushi for dinner

If you don’t like fish at all, you can still eat in Japan, but I am pleased to say that despite my muted taste buds, I adore fish, not lessened since I found out it helps build up vitamin D levels, and therefore prevent further fractures or breakages, fall or no fall. I came to realise that the Japanese like saying sorry perhaps even more than we do.

My friend Caro overheard a disgruntled hotel guest berating a Japanese maid for her room’s failings; the Japanese maid in question then returned to her friend around the corner, out of earshot of the fearsome fraulein and started to sing a kind of impromptu karaoke: Sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry I kept you waiting in a bizarre but potentially successful bid for a place on Japan’s Got Talent. Clearly they (like us Brits) don’t always mean it, but say it as a reflex response. But they do say it. They say it A LOT. We ordered sushi, sashimi and tempura in our Kyoto hotel bar: the waiter apologised it would take an hour to prepare. (It didn’t.) We passed someone on the train. The people we passed apologised to us. (We hadn’t touched them, a big no-no in Japan, nor they us.) I visited a temple and was asked to put my brolly down with gesturing and "Sorry" as this was the only word which could indicate polite but obligatory request...And on it goes.

Geishas and vending machines. Majestic meets modern. 
(Thanks to Helen for the photo)

Although consistently cloudy weather out paid to any chances of seeing Mount Fuji, we made our way among a thousand other tourists, armed with our transparent umbrellas, to the Kyoto imperial palace, on one of its many open days. The palace is sprawling, with many chambers open for tantalising views of the inner sanctums of Kyoto’s ancient elite. One Japanese stereotype I had forgotten was that they love to take photographs. They sure do.

Imperial Palace, Kyoto, gardens
Bird of prey in distance (just seen)

These days it’s more iPhones than Nikon but queues within the palace were everywhere as people patiently waited for their chance to photograph every aspect of the palace’s gardens and buildings. The roof, made of cypress bark, amazed me, as did the beauty of the architecture. I think I associate it with calmness because of the many Japanese films I have watched. There is always something spiritual in the way that people interact, and with such stunning landscapes, my mind was calmed and the rain seemed immaterial to appreciating the serenity.

Imperial Palace, Kyoto

Next stop, Tokyo, and a stay near the Times Square equivalent. Anticipating a further culture shock, we boarded Shinkansen again as a three. Like all of Japanese transport it runs like clockwork (or perhaps that’s inaccurate; it runs as clockwork should!) and the seats quickly rotate so that all passengers are able to travel facing forward should they wish. I was delighted to eat my first Japanese bento box for lunch, which followed not by the work I had hoped to do, but by drooping eyelids once more, as the train lulled me seductively into a deep sleep. ZZzzz.

A Bento Box Like No Other

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