At various times over the years my wife Agnes has suggested we take a trip to Japan. I was always indifferent to these overtures as I had been to Tokyo on a solo trip in 1985 and found the city to be too clean and ordered and, therefore, uninteresting. By extension, I also assumed cleanliness and order to be characteristic of the whole of Japan. So I wasn’t enthusiastic about a return visit to Tokyo or Japan.
But over the years Agnes has indulged me by accompanying me to places she has already seen; so in the interest of marital fairness I was amenable to revisiting Japan if the stars properly aligned themselves. And this they finally did in early 2016: We were itchy to travel somewhere but only had two weeks to spare. Our destination had to be nearby as we didn’t have days to waste sitting in a plane. This effectively knocked out North America or Europe from contention but Japan was only an 8 hour flight away. Any travel loving Aussie can easily tolerate such a “short” flight.
As is my wont, once we had decided on Japan I instantly warmed to the task of researching and developing an itinerary. Eventually I came up with what I thought was a comprehensive tour that would encompass traditional Japan, rural Japan and modern (i.e. urban) Japan. To wit:
- we would begin with three days of exploring historical Kyoto and surrounds
- followed by 5 days of hiking the Nakasendo Trail
- The trail is a feudal-era postal route which has maintained some of its traditional villages and customs.
- concluding with 3 days exploring modern Tokyo.
Our friends Alan and Ruth expressed an interest in joining us, so we rounded out to a happy foursome of adventurers.
We planned the trip for late March 2016 so we could also enjoy the added bonus of experiencing Japan’s cherry blossom season. As will be seen, we scored bigly here. But I am starting to get ahead of myself.
I had intended to make this a single post but as I began I quickly came to realise there was too much to write about and that I should turn one post into three, like so:
1)Intro & Kyoto and Nara
So I am publishing the Kyoto leg below and will publish the other two posts as they’re written.
Part 1 Kyoto
We arrived in Kyoto on the evening of 28 March 2016 and had a celebratory drink in our room with Alan and Ruth who had arrived earlier in the day. As is probably the case for many tourists to Japan our first topic of conversation was the extraordinary Japanese toilets! I’ll spare much of the details but one issue of fascination was the way the bidet function zeroed straight in on its point of interest (to put it somewhat delicately). What was the deal here? Is there a laser that directs the stream? Dunno but I do know that the first time I used the toilet I was in hysterics not only from the pinpoint accuracy but also from the novelty of having all intimate ablutions taken care with minimal effort from myself.
But enough of that, the next day dawned and we began our three days of exploring Kyoto and its surrounds. Instead of giving a chronological rundown of the days, I’ll group the attractions we visited.
Right from our first day we knew we had picked the right season to come to Japan. Kyoto’s cherry blossoms were in full bloom and brides were out having their pictures taken amongst the blossoms. All but the most unromantic would not enjoy watching well-appointed brides (grooms to a much less extent) pose for their “happily ever after” pictures. This meant that while folks kept a respectful distance, there were nevertheless a significant number of people snapping their own bridal portraits of a person they hadn’t previously seen and were unlikely to ever see her again.
Architecture and Gardens
As Kyoto was the capital of Japan between the 8th to 19th centuries, it is populated with venerable wooden buildings. Although these structures have fallen victim to fires over the centuries the Japanese have been diligent in resurrecting their temples much to the benefit of their heritage and culture.
Following are a few of the more interesting temples and gardens we toured.
The meditative gardens were particularly intriguing as they formed a cocoon against the surrounding urban atmosphere and noise, encouraging a calm serenity to descend upon us.
The main selling point of the Arashiyama District in the tourist literature is the Bamboo Forest. The brochures lead you to believe that it is a unique and pleasant walking area where one can find tranquility and meditation (just like in the meditative garden above!)
And as the above tourism picture attests, it does very much look like one can have a calming stroll through the forest… at 6 a.m. I’d guess; because that must have been when the photo was taken. When we arrived at the forest in mid-afternoon it was not a tranquil walking area. Rather more like a crush of people; a very respectful crush but a crush nonetheless. Tranquility was not to be found amongst this throng.
But I wouldn’t want to put off anyone from visiting the area. There are additional sites in the Arashiyama District that make it a worthwhile visit. For example, after paying a Y1,000 fee you can enter the villa and gardens formerly owned by Japanese actor Okochi Denjiro.
or do a freebie visit to the cottage of haiku master Matsuo Basho’s disciples.
If you really want to immerse yourself into Japanese culture you can hire traditional Japanese costumes by the hour just like this young lady.
No, she’s not a real geisha. Heck, she’s not even Japanese! Korean, I do believe. Didn’t matter to Agnes though, she just wanted a picture beside someone/anyone done up in a geisha outfit.
One can disparage the costume dress up as a cheap grab for the tourist dollar; but like Australia’s Eureka Stockade and America’s Tombstone City such things do give the young an opportunity to experience their nation’s history with the hope that it will subsequently spark a lifelong cultural exploration.
For us, Kyoto’s highlight was the Gion District at night. This area is primarily comprised of restaurants set within historic wooden buildings. Tourists prowl the district on the lookout for a genuine geisha making her way between restaurants where she graces groups of businessmen with her attentions. Tourists can be intrusive in their pursuit of geisha photos so there are signs requesting that geishas’ dignity be respected.
Also that tourists generally act with appropriate decorum.
In our attempts to (unintrusively) seek out a geisha we would take our cue from small bands of foreigners anxiously lurking outside certain restaurants. Most of the group (including us) assumed an assemblage has formed because someone has witnessed a geisha entering the restaurant. In most cases it turned out to be a case of a gang coalescing around an idly loitering tourist who was too embarrassed to explain they had a hope, but really no idea if, there was a geisha inside the restaurant.
We did randomly happen upon a few geishas as they shuffled on wooden clogs toward their next appointment. I was truly both impressed and intimidated by their quiet dignity and comportment such that I kept a respectful distance. Agnes was similarly impressed but her excitement at being in the presence of real live geishas overwhelmed her into following the geishas (although not too closely).
On our second Kyoto morning we set out with a dodgy map for the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine and got hopelessly lost for a fair while. This reduced the time we could spend at the Shrine so we didn’t have the two hours required to walk through the thousands of torii (gates) to the inner shrine.
And the mass of humanity inside the toriis hindered us from trying to hurry our way through the path. It was as badly congested as the Bamboo Forest; but we have made a promise that if we make a return visit to Kyoto our first goal will be to walk the torii path.
On our third day we took an hour’s train ride to the city of Nara. Nara wasn’t a must-see on our trip but it was a pleasant way to spend our last day before we joined the Nakasendo Trail; and it is after all our hometown of Canberra’s sister city (according to the signs proudly posted on the approaches to Canberra).
Being animal lovers Agnes and I most enjoyed the unique experience of sharing urban space with freely roaming deer.
Also impressive was Nara’s Great Buddha Hall, the largest wooden building in the world.
Not only were we dwarfed by the building but also by the visually stunning sculptures residing within the temple.
We took an enjoyable circuitous walking route back to Nara’s train station via the city’s ubiquitous parklands.
This was our third day of rewarding exploration and it was time to get back to the hotel and finalise preparations for our trek along the Nakasendo Trail.