There was a time when the word “Kyoto” was synonymous, for me at least, with an environmental pact between a bunch of different countries. This came into effect around the same time that people started wearing coloured rubber bands around their wrists to signify that they cared about the environment and world poverty, and that their voices should be added to Bono’s, Bob Geldof’s, and those of many other incomprehensibly annoying celebrities. In actual fact, Glastonbury gave a load of white wrist-bands away for free and every hippy in England rejoiced thinking about what a lovely idea it was to wear your liberalist views on your wrists for everyone to see; as if sweaty dreadlocks, Indian-inspired woolly jumpers and the perpetual consumption of bean-burgers and falafels weren’t clue enough already.
Now (and I mean “now” in a very recent sense of the word) I am aware that it is also a city. Not only is it a city, but it was Japan’s capital city for most of the last two millennia, and is perhaps the most visited destination in Japan after Tokyo. How I managed to go through life without knowing any of this is beyond me, and all those people who came on the JET scheme because they are ridiculously obsessed with Japan are probably spitting at their screens and wondering why they didn’t offer my position to someone who deserved it more.
Well I know now and, while all my students were scribbling away on their mid-term exam papers, I took it upon myself to go and see what all the fuss is about.
After resolving the night before to get up early and make it to the train station for 9, I got up at 9, made it to the station for 11, and paid a little visit to McDonalds before finally jumping on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Kyoto. The service provided by Japan’s Shinkansen is legendary, and rightly so; the average delay on the Tokaido Line – the line that services the Shizuoka region – is around 18 seconds, the trains travel at 177mph, and that gets me from Shizuoka to Kyoto (around 190 miles) in an hour and 36 minutes. That is almost exactly the same amount of time it takes for me to get from London to Salisbury (about 90 miles). Of course, none of this comes without a price; each way costs nearly ¥10,000 which, at today’s exchange rates, is nearly £80. Each way! Let us not forget that you can often buy a return plane ticket from London to Dublin for under a tenner. Nevertheless, it is convenient (and, I think, necessary since the comparative bus service takes a DVT-inducing 7 hours).
Let me just take some time out now to tell you that I love trains. Ever since I was a kid I have loved trains (though I always stopped short of wearing a striped bobble hat and sitting on a bridge with a notebook), and I still have very fond and vivid memories of my granddad taking me on the steam train at the Watercress Line in Hampshire. Steam trains are a whole other kettle of fish of course, but there is still joy to be had from arriving at Waterloo and performing a slow circuit of the shops, picking up a nice crisp newspaper, a strong cappuccino and a pasty or baguette, before ambling onto the train and having an hour and a half to myself to read, listen to music and stare out the window at the English countryside. Every country I have ever been to has provided these same simple pleasures, but Japan is the first where the latter has been completely factored out of the equation. The cities and towns are urban sprawls which, without closer inspection, look like nothing more than shanty towns interspersed with rice paddies. Logging takes place on every hillside, the countryside is all but non-existent, and just as you spot what you think is an unspoilt mountain out of the corner of your eye, you notice the electricity pylons marching across it. Every single inch of available space has been built upon in the most haphazard, random way possible, and reminds me of the way people pitch their tents when they arrive late to a music festival (that is, to find a pitch roughly half the size of their tent in the middle of a group of close friends, and set it up at night when no-one is awake to protest).
Japan has a population of roughly 127.4 million people, all sharing 145,925 sq mi of land. That’s 870 people per square mile. Compare this with the UK population of 62 million people and 94,060 sq mi and you’re looking at an another 211 people for every square mile. That’s a lot of extra people. I can only suspect that this is one of the reasons why you never, ever seem to leave a built-up area. The rail lines pass through a continuous, never-ending urban expanse for 1h36m, and the aforementioned mountains in the distance only hint at how beautiful it must’ve once been.
Our image of Japan has always been one that is based on the bright lights of Tokyo or, by stark contrast, the little paper houses and ladies in kimonos with chopsticks in their hair. Tokyo delivers in spades and, as you’ll see in a minute, so does Kyoto; it’s just the space in-between that suffers; and rather dramatically at that.
I arrived in Kyoto and hopped onto a bus to the Gojo Guesthouse; a lovely little hostel on the east side of the city. I took out the Lonely Planet and felt a twinge of nostalgia creep through me as memories of my last year away came fluttering into view. It was a beautiful day, I was in a beautiful city, and I was ready to do some serious temple-viewing, so I ambled up a hill and joined the hoards of tourists on their way to visit Kyomizu-dera. This Buddhist temple dates back to the late 8th century, though its present buildings were reconstructed in 1633 after a fire. It it said to have been built by a Buddhist priest in honour of the Goddess of Mercy, but I’m assuming he had some help because some of those wooden beams are really big. The entire temple is supported on wooden stilts that jut out of the hillside and it makes a very pretty (if ubiquitous) photo of a building seeming to float among the treetops.
From here I walked north through some of the more picturesque streets in Kyoto, lined with omiyage (gift) shops, tea rooms and ramen restaurants and packed with tourists; lots of tourists. During the last 3 months in Shizuoka I’ve become something of a minor celebrity to the local population and I’m really beginning to love being the intriguing outsider. People treat you with exceptional courtesy and respect, and you can get away with most social faux pas simply because of the colour of your skin. You grow used to hearing nothing but Japanese all day every day (usually, in my case, with a few Americans, Kiwis and northerners chucked in at the weekends) and so it comes as quite a shock to hear an Essex accent blasting away as clear as day. Who the hell let these people book a holiday outside Spain I thought, as I overtook the plethora of bleached-blonde hair and ducked into the nearest alley. I sped away ever-northward, through parks and past countless temples until I had lost the throng and found somewhere to have some soba noodles in curry sauce. I successfully stained my nice white polo shirt forever, and went back to the hostel to reflect on my day.
In the evening I arranged to meet Fenn and his girlfriend, Ellie. I met Fenn in July, 2006 just after I had toured the North Island of New Zealand and had had a delightful week in Wellington getting smashed on Jaeger Bombs and reading fantasy novels (you can read about it here). I had just got a job in Auckland and I was looking for somewhere a little more permanent to stay, but for the time-being I was holed-up in Auckland Central Backpackers and subject to a continual influx of nutters up for a good time. Fenn, a couple of other nutters and I all went to see The Arctic Monkeys one night and, after some serious jumping around and air punching, it turned out to be one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to in my life. We all added each other on Facebook and have stayed in touch ever since. Cheers, Zuckerberg.
So we all met up at a bridge and then plodded along to a Japanese restaurant where Ellie and I proceeded to bestow the virtues of raw squid onto Fenn, and I proceeded to show off my Japanese skills (rather unnecessarily I might add, seeing as everyone in Kyoto speaks English). After polishing off a bottle of sake we left to find a bar and, after a few dodgy starts where a only a single patron propped up the bar, we found one with two patrons and continued to chat over drinks until the shots of Jaeger made us sleepy.
Another day, another tour, this time a little further north; more temples, more sightseeing, more walking, and a little shopping thrown in for good measure. Kyoto is a beautiful city, and if you take the time to walk off the beaten track you can get so much more from it. During the whole of the second day I hardly saw a single tourist, and many of the temples I visited were bathed in silence but for the quiet sounding of a muffled gong within. This was the Kyoto I wanted to experience and, while I sat in the hostel that evening and reflected on the day, I sipped on a beer and looked forward to what Nara would bring in the morning.