Kyoto Protocol

Japan’s cultural hub reflects all that is so good about the country; modesty, punctuality and discipline

goldone pavilionWhen the destination takes precedence, some journeys pale into the distance. I have 24 hours to visit Kyoto after 15-hour flight into Japan, via Taiwan. There is barely enough time to gather the thoughts in my groggy head, or savour the sights as I shake off the jet lag, grab my knapsack and make my way through the throng to board a ‘Shinkansen’, the Japanese bullet train.

The wheezing sound of the aerodynamically-designed, long-snouted machine is intimidating as it snakes into the platform at Nagoya station.

‘On time, every time, to a second, ‘my Japanese acquaintance Kiko tells me. The Japanese are sticklers for punctuality and hate to keep their machines waiting. “if speed can kill the pleasure of a trip, this is it,” I say to myself with a chuckle I find hard to suppress in the organised bustle of the teeming station.

It takes a mere 50 minutes at 320 kmph from Nagoya to Japan’s cultural hub of Kyoto, a city of 1.5 million, famed for its Buddhist temples with incense hanging heavy in the dry air, expansive gardens, and gleaming palaces. On the train, you only catch a fleeting glimpse of the scenery as they whiz past: rice fields mostly and some traditional houses, so time is better spent training your eyes on the record-busting speed lighting up the digital display above and surveying the spare interiors of the economy class coach.

historic nijo castleA fellow traveller prefers a pose with a pretty cabin attendant – a relief from the stillness inside – which some tourists find amusing. Bored regulars on the line keep their heads down, glued to their tabs, phones and computers, their fingers messaging, mailing and typing. The joys of travel are lost in the hush of the high-speed rush. When caught up in the bustle of Japanese life, the journey often descends into an episode of vacant thoughts as the destination looms.

“The Japanese are a modest people, timid people,” another acquaintance Yamazaki tells me as we approach Kyoto. He is polite, looks at the floor and avoids eye contact, like many of his compatriots. The chatter and the throb of life at a station are missing despite the crowds. Every process appears programmed and every event is planned the way it is meant to be. A bit disconcerting really and, I really I may be a lonely traveller after all.

Outside the station, school kids wave and greet us with a sprinkling of English, a relief because language can be a challenge in the Land of the Rising sun. The Japanese are a content, inward-looking bunch, rarely showing emotion, you surmise. Kiko, I realise, has now turned into friend from an acquaintance, and her visage sports a broad grin. “I managed some shut eye, 20 minutes maybe, on the train,” she says. The mood is less formal now and I decide not to shun the sun anymore and step out of the covered confines of the station building.

japanese bullen trainThe children are also warming up to me and some of them as where i come from halting English. We start a conversation about Dubai and the world’s tallest building it has come to be famed for. They seem to understand and i am happy to quickly shed the lonely tag being amongst such bright, eager faces keen on a lesson in geography.

“The younger generation is more outgoing these days; they want to learn, explore and belong, ”Kiko makes a point, warming up to the topic. I sense a growing pride in the achievements of the island nation on an economic revival after two decades of tepid growth, and watch tourist groups from all over the country returning to their dressed in traditional kimonos.

I had arrived late for the cherry blossoms which disappeared a fortnight ago, but the cheery faces and bright sunshine is uplifting. You can smell and sense its larger purpose at the shrine we are visiting where gongs are sounded and heads bowed in reverence.

paintings in the ryoainji templeFor the Japanese, the Ryoanji Temple is a spiritual must-see shrine. A World Heritage Site, it was built as a country house by the Tokudaiji Clan, which was converted into a Zen training temple in 1450. I find the faithful meditating near its rock garden and linger for a closer look, move on to the pond, then to a wash basin where there is an inscription which reads: “I learn to be content.” I have 20 minutes and the rest of the tour has to done in a hurry, I am reminded by my guide. I take a quick walk to the Kuri, the main temple building with its sloping roofs, and some Japanese murals of creatures great and small.

It was in Kyoto, formerly known as Heian-kyo, that the geisha culture really took off in AD794. Geishas received huge attention in Western popular novel Memories of a Geisha, by American author Arthur Golden.

I am nervous by now and head out for some Kyoto white miso soup, tempura, a beef concoction, and some sticky rice with gravy at the Yoshikawa, a joint suggested by Kiko. I forget the Japanese names of the other dishes, but if you are a tempura fan, there are places all over Kyoto for a nibble that will delight the palate.

Sushi bars and restaurants abound in Japan’s seventh largest city, and important tourist destination located on the island of Honshu. I also noticed Egyptian, Indian, Lebanese and Iranian restaurants at street corners in the heart of the city.

japanese cuisineKyoto is best explored by bicycle or on foot. Summer is tourism season and bars and restaurants are thriving. Kiyamichi district, which runs along a canal, is the place to enjoy a night out in the city. I meet with Hamid, an Iranian expat, who runs two kabab joints here. He was welcomed in Japan after he fled his country during the revolution in 1979. He now has a Japanese wife and two kids. “The only problem I faced was learning Japanese, but i managed to pick it up in two years. Life has been better since,” he says.

The next morning is spent visiting the resplendent Golden Pavilion, or the Kinkaku, with its sloping roof covered in gold. Originally a villa owned by a nobleman named Saionji Kintsune, it was acquired by a Shogun, or feudal lord in 1397, and later converted into a shrine, where some relics of the Buddha are kept. Entry into the sanctum sanctorum is barred for visitors, but it is a sight to behold even from a distance, with the viewing area separated by a large pond.  A stroll in the compound can take an hour and you pass by a pretty wooden Teahouse, and an area for open-air Buddhist rituals.

zen zoneFor the less religiously inclined, there is the seat of valour, the Nijo Castle, a couple of kilometres away. Completed in 1626 by the third Shogun of the Tokugawa clan, it has lavish paintings, carvings and is one of the best examples of Momoyama culture from the 14th century.

The castle was returned to the Emperor by the last Shogun feudal lord in 1867 and is now a World Heritage Site.

I managed to watch a kimono fashion show at a mall before I rush to grab a few gifts at Nishiki market, a narrow two-kilometre long stretch which dates back to 1311. Some 200 shops sell traditional Japanese food, sweets, dried food and fish here. Paintings, kimonos and traditional Japanese fans and sweets are a good buy if you can suffer the smell of fish and other creatures of the deep.

nijo castleThe ‘Shinkanzen’ awaits for my ride back to Nagoya. It is fast, predictable, even inspiring if you are a fan of time travel. Kyoto was a trip into Japan’s past. Nagoya is the modern, industrial face of the country from where Toyota, Honda, Suzuki and other rule.

What better way to arrive here than on the bullet train? W

Courtesy by K.T.

traditional outfit

stepped walkways

stairway to heaven

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