I watched him from inside the cabin as he counted down the seconds. He reminded of a Cape Canaveral operator sending off a rocket into the space. The clock struck eight. He blew the whistle. The train started to move. First slowly, then faster and faster. I looked out. The glimmering city lights became a blurry painting on my glass window. I was on my way, leaving the modern manga loving Tokyo for the old traditional Japan. Or so I thought.
The ultra fast Shinkansen train takes you from Tokyo to Kyoto in just over two hours. Introduced in the 1960s, the high-speed railway connects the capital with almost every region in Japan. And you can be sure to arrive in time. The average delay the last decade is less than 30 seconds, including uncontrollable causes, such as natural disasters. Who said the Germans were the most punctual people in the world.
Traveling Japan is easy. You can wake up in Tokyo, have lunch in Osaka, and still make your dinner plans in Hiroshima.
If you think Kyoto is a sleepy village on the Japanese countryside, you will be surprised. Kyoto is a super modern city and the former capital of Japan. Something I realised the moment I stepped off at Kyōto Station. A futuristic glass building packed with sharply dressed women on the way to the next business meeting. Not exactly the kimono wearing geishas I had imagined.
For me, Kyoto was a culinary experience. The food mesmerized me. Everywhere I went. Colorful flavor bombs made with clinical precision. A dedication rarely seen anywhere else. A second grade restaurant seemed to be as good as the best ones in Europe.
Kobe cows get daily massage, drink large quantities of beer, and listen to classical music. At least according to the urban legend.
The Kobe beef finally arrived to our table. The Japanese meat from the nearby Hyōgo region is simply considered the best in the world. Six small pieces of meat for $120, serves with a DIY gas stove. Soya, lime, and salt. That’s all. So simple, yet so complex. Fried a couple of seconds on each side, it melts in your mouth like hot butter. Sometimes reality do exceed expectations.
The high grade Japanese meat was just the beginning of my culinary journey. The restaurant next door lured me in for some Yakitori, the epitome of Japanese barbecue. Mouth watering chicken, skewered on bamboo sticks and grilled over charcoal fire. Served with tare sauce and a stone cold Asahi beer, what else could you ask for?
The answer, Sushi. As you never tasted before. Small pieces of art delivered to your mouth from a never ending conveyor belt. Hand-pressed mounds of rice filled with tuna, shrimp, squid, octopus, and egg. The raw fish, called sashimi, made of the freshest of fish collected from the 3.30 am fish market. With a dab of wasabi and Japanese soy sauce, each piece gets a unique blend of taste. So different from the fast-food-version exported to the rest of the world.
You can’t go to Kyoto without soaking up the rich Japanese culture that gravitated to the region for centuries. The numbers of temples, pagodas, and shrines are just overwhelming. But it wasn’t before I visited the Golden Pavilion, the Kinkaku-ji, that I really understood the beauty of Japanese architecture.
The Zen Buddhist temple, situated in the outskirts of the city, has an interesting story. Burned down by a mental ill monk in 1950, it had to be completely rebuilt. Made cheap and shiny, simply overrated? Quite the contrary. It was made even more magnificent. Covered with pure gold leafs, the three storey pagoda literally blinds its visitors with a yellow reflection in the surrounding pond, filled with small islands, miniature boats and bridges. Japan really is a fascinating place.
My mother has talked about Japanese gardens since I was a kid. I have heard stories about tea ceremonies, miniature landscapes, and Zen Buddhism long before I could point out Japan on the map. Ironically, I happened to get there before her.
We took the train to Nara. Situated just an hour from Kyoto, it holds some of the finest gardens in Japan. The train manager bowed as he entered the wagon. He excused himself for checking the tickets. But it should be we thanking him for taking us to Nara, a place that come to spoil us with its cultural heritage.
He appeared out of nowhere. A little Japanese man, not taller than to my shoulders. “Follow me”, he said, “I will tell you a secret”. Before we knew it, we were taken to a private tour around Isuien Garden, one of the finest walking gardens in Japan.
The man waved his hands in the air as we walked on narrow paths, jumped over stones passages, and balanced our way over miniature bridges. ”Japanese gardens are created with three basic elements”, he explained. “All with a different meaning. Stones symbolise duration, water renewal, and trees the movement of thoughts. Just as the branches move with the wind.” We listened with curiosity.
But what about the secret? We looked at him with excitement. ”Everyone wants to go here during the cherry blossom…”, he shook his head, “..but the best time to visit Kyoto is in the fall. Mild weather, less tourists, and burning autumn leafs. Visitors in the spring often miss the blossom, because it varies every year, from late March to May”. He was right, we did miss it. But it didn’t matter. Japan is wonderful. All year round.
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